Homelessness has become a national crisis in the United States with millionsof persons losing their homes. Various institutions have been created by lo-cal governments and private agencies to accommodate homeless individualsand families including large, emergency shelters, transitional housing andwelfare hotels. In order to understand how these places developed and thefunctions they serve in contemporary society, it is necessary to examine thehistory of homelessness in the United States, including attitudes towardspoor and homeless persons. Through an analysis of the roots of institutionsand their physical forms, the rationale for existing types and their policiescan be clarified. The have been indigent and homeless persons in the United States from thetime the first colonies were established but there are three main periods ofhomelessness. One occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century, onein the 1930's and the third in the 1980's. The policies and settings createdin response to the existence of homeless persons emerged from the culturalheritages of the early colonial period and the values and ethics of the colo-nists in the seventeenth century. They largely rested on English tradition-sand forms with major emphasis on Ioccal responsibility. During the second period of homelessness in the latter part of the nineteenth century, respon-sibility for the poor had moved from being a concern of the local community,family and neighbors to increasing use of institutions, including almshous-es, poorhouses, workhouses, and religious missions. Poverty was seen as aserious social problem requiring drastic social reforms. By the twentiethcentury, few of these forms remained. The Great Depression of the 1930'sand the ensuing widespread poverty led to the develoment of new institution-al responses such as work camps and shelters, increasingly involving thenational government.Through and examination of these facilities and the ideologies they repre-sented, an analysis of the contemporary shelter system wil be undertaken.The cultural heritage of the past will be used to illuminate some of the formscurrently in use.