In Victorian times (for Britain see Poor Law and workhouse), poverty was seen as a dishonourable state caused by a lack of the moral virtue of industriousness (or industry as it was called). As was depicted by Charles Dickens, a poorhouse could resemble a reformatory and house children, either with families or alone, or a penal labour regime to give the poor work at manual labour and subject them to physical punishment.
The term is commonly applied to such a facility that houses the destitute elderly; institutions of this nature were widespread in the United States prior to the adoption of the Social Security program in the 1930s. Facilities housing indigents who are not elderly are typically referred to as homeless shelters, or simply "shelters," in current usage.
Often the poorhouse was situated on the grounds of a poor farm on which able-bodied residents were required to work; such farms were common in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries; it could even be part of the same economic complex as a prison farm and other penal or charitable public institutions.
Most were working farms that produced at least some of the produce, grain, and livestock they consumed. Residents were expected to provide labor to the extent that their health would allow, both in the fields and in providing housekeeping and care for other residents. Rules were strict and accommodations minimal.
Poor farms were the origin of the U.S. tradition of county governments (rather than cities, townships, or state or federal governments) providing social services for the needy within their borders. This tradition has continued and is in most cases codified in state law, although the financial costs of such care have been shifted in part to state and federal governments. Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller's teacher was raised in such a facility during the 19th century before leaving it at age 20 to become Helen Keller's teacher and later lifelong companion. The novel The Miracle Worker and its 1957 TV play, 1959 Broadway play, and its 1962 film adaptation included harsh descriptions of the conditions therein.