Riis argues that the cheap lodging-houses lining Chatham Street and the Bowery also feed the “tramps’ army.” These are home to idleness and its corollary, crime, because they invite a transitory population of young men, having come in search of crowds and “life” without any interest in settling down. There are some respectable clerks and mechanics who can’t afford anything better, but thieves also live here, on the lookout for recruits. Inspector Byrnes tells Riis that 400 young men in the past few years have been arrested for petty crimes originating here.
As Riis moves on to a new neighborhood, the tenements around the Bowery, he continues to develop the connection between idleness and crime. Here, he argues that the lack of stable housing directly fosters a population of thieves and vagrants, and even encourages young men from outside New York to migrate into the city, where they end up as petty thieves.
Riis quotes the report from the Society for the Prevention of the Cruelty to Children about the story of David Smith, the “New York Fagin,” who offered a 14-year-old boy named Edward Mulhearn (a runaway from home) a place to stay. Smith instructed Mulhearn in the art of pickpocketing; finally, he burned the boy’s arms with a hot iron so that he’d gain sympathy as a beggar, supposedly one who had been injured at the ironworks. Finally the boy’s father found Smith and his friends in his den, enjoying the proceeds of Mulhearn’s begging.
Riis cites Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (a major influence on his own writing), a novel whose villain, Fagin, makes a profit out of sending young children off to beg and steal for him. The sensational tale that Riis relates here seems, indeed, lifted out of a novel: his point is that the youngest and most vulnerable are easily exploited by the comparatively more powerful.
These lodging-houses include 15-cent, 10-cent, and 7-cent beds, hardly worthy of the name. One wealthy and respectable New York resident runs several such establishments and is known to make $8,000 a year profit, paying for his stylish house in Murray Hill. At other unlicensed houses, one can sleep on the floor for five cents or squat in a hallway for three cents. In total, he says, over five million people lacked stable housing last year—an increase of several hundred thousand over the previous year.
Riis tracks the specific economies of these lodging-houses, emphasizing the irony of the gap between the lavish Murray Hill home of one owner and the squalid conditions of the housing on which that wealth is built. The scarcity of decent, stable housing in New York is, for Riis, at the center of the economic and moral disasters he portrays.
Along the Bowery are located nearly one fifth of the city’s pawn shops and one sixth of its saloons. During presidential elections, according to Inspector Byrnes, political bosses enter these lodging-houses to win votes by bribery and fraud.
Inspector Byrnes’ name recurs several times in the book, as a key source of information about New York’s poor (though Riis also at times criticizes the police).
Recently a stove manufacturer attempted a charity experiment, opening a breakfast shop for the unemployed that offered coffee and a roll for free. After two weeks 2,014 people were counted in line. On that day the shop was closed, the experiment ended.
This short-lived “experiment” illustrates the extent of the need in these neighborhoods, a need that ultimately exceeded the capacity for a single individual.