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Homeless in Chicago: Echoes of the Great Depression [April, 2016]


It is a sadly obvious fact that our country is at a stage comparable in many respects to both the late 1920s and the 1930s, during the Great Depression. Economic stagnation, income inequality, high unemployment (as of February 2016, 10.1% or 14.7%, depending on the source), and increasing homelessness are only a few of the parallels between that earlier time of despair and our own.


The rise of demagoguery and bigotry in our mainstream political discourse is another clear analogy, reminiscent of demagoguery in Europe during the Depression.


So it may be of interest to recall conditions in that earlier time, since things are likely to get worse in the coming years. As a historian who has studied Chicago's public homeless shelters in the 1930s, I'd like to consider that topic here.


Some readers may, perhaps, recognize similarities between what I'll describe and what they have personally experienced.


In 2014, a "point-in-time" count of Chicago's homeless population found 5,329 people in shelters and another 965 unsheltered residents. But according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, there are in fact 64,000 homeless adults, 48,000 homeless children with parents, and 12,000 people younger than 21 without parents or guardians. (These numbers include people without a permanent residence who live with friends or relatives.)


Compare that with the 30,000 to 60,000 homeless residents who were in Chicago at any given time in the late 1920s, when the city had about 300,000 more people than it does now. Or, even more tellingly, compare the 5,329 in shelters on one night in 2014 to the 20,000 who coursed through shelters the entire month of February 1932, in the depths of the Depression.


These figures are ominous.


Even more ominous, though, is the fact that homeless shelters have been closing in recent years, as government funding has become less reliable. For example, the North Side Housing Shelter closed in November 2010; Catholic Charities closed two family shelters in the summer of 2015; and the New Life for Men shelter is currently closed because of funding cuts.


In our present political environment, such trends are likely to continue. And conditions in shelters are likely to worsen, as the few that remain open become overcrowded. Like they were in the Great Depression.




Conditions in most shelters (particularly for men) during those years were abysmal, and give us evidence of how harmful "austerity" politics is to the poor.


One man who had found it necessary to apply to a shelter in 1935 described it as follows:


Here [in shelters] privacy is a forgotten word. On a cold or rainy day, or during the evenings, men are crowded into the basement or assembly room—German, colored, Pole, Greek, Mexican, American, Irish, Russian, and every nationality… Here also are degenerates, drunks, working men, bums, clerks, old men with all ambition gone, young men whose every ideal has been crushed, all herded together. One almost tastes the stench of unclean bodies, and the sulphur odor from fumigated clothes. For quite a while this lack of privacy nearly drove me nuts.


First of all, the physical facilities--warehouses, old factory buildings, schools commandeered for the purpose--were not exactly calculated to lift the spirits.


For instance, a "recreation" room with few amenities was typically overcrowded with men dozing on uncomfortable seats, standing silently or sitting on the floor because there were not enough chairs or benches, a few perhaps playing checkers or dominoes quietly in a corner.


Much worse, though, was the "bull pen," a dark, damp, dismal place located in the basement, where men could go to escape supervision. Often littered with cigarette butts, wads of chewing tobacco, crusts of bread, and discarded clothing, it had no furniture except some backless benches on which "clients"--or "inmates," as they were called--might sleep or have a drink.


The sleeping rooms were sometimes so densely packed with cots that it was necessary for the occupant to crawl in from the head or the foot of the bed, which violated state health regulations. Having been sent to bed at 8:00 or 9:00, the inmate spent the night trying to get to sleep while surrounded by 25 or even a hundred other men, until awoken at 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. The cacophony of "snoring, sneezing, moaning, sleep-talking, and coughing," to quote one account, would likely keep him awake for hours.


For most men there were no pillows or sheets. As for the blankets, they seemed to one reporter to be made of paper, which left the men shivering all night from drafts--drafts that did nothing to ameliorate the stench of perspiring bodies and disinfectants. Bedbugs and lice, fond of this environment, bit and crept all over their prey.

Meal service, too, was inadequate, especially in the years before 1935 when only two meals were served a day, at 6:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. (It was assumed that if the men got hungry in the interim, they could go out and beg for food or find odd jobs that might pay a few cents.)

The food itself was not infrequently rotten or bug-ridden, and most of the time was quite bland--cold beets, weak coffee, unbuttered bread, a tin bowl of beef stew, an old piece of fruit, etc.


In general, the central fact of shelter life in the 1930s was regimentation. One author summed it up well: “When the man enters the shelter he learns the meaning of the word ‘line.’ He is a ‘linesman’; he lines up to see the caseworker; he lines up for his meals; he lines up to fumigate [every two weeks] and then to bathe; he lines up to wash, to shave, to use the toilet, and to go to bed. ‘I spend,’ said one man, ‘half my waking hours either standing and waiting for something or sitting and waiting for someone.’” “Why in hell don’t they line us up against the wall and shoot us and get it over with,” grumbled one inmate.


Lines six blocks long to get food, serpentine lines that might take two hours to walk through.


"Watchmen" were always present to intimidate and challenge the men, especially if they were drunk, in which case they might be beaten--with clubs, sawed-off baseball bats, or lead pipes--and forced outside even in the cold night air.


A reporter summed up the whole wretched environment: “The place has approximately the same effect as a jail. It is the individual against the world. The monotony of the same old faces, ideas, arguments, line, nothing to do but sit, finally gets under the skin.”


Through collective struggle and activism by the shelter men and social workers who represented them, conditions did improve a little, for example when lunch began to be served in late 1934. Likewise, after a winter of discontent in late 1931--protest demonstrations and individual acts of resistance occurring in shelters all over the city--a Special Activities Department was established to give the men more options for recreation.


In fact, Communist organizers had considerable success in some shelters as they advocated not only for better food and more humane treatment but, more broadly, interracial unity and a nationwide socialist movement.


Daily Communist-run meetings were held in a few shelters, in which the men discussed how best to improve conditions and which specific grievances should next be brought to the shelter supervisor. At the conclusion of these meetings, a researcher remarked, "the radical songs are sung--‘Solidarity,’ ‘We’ll Hang Hoover to a Sour Apple Tree,’ and the ‘Marseillaise.’ Misguided as it perhaps all is," he continued, "it is rather a stirring sight to see men and boys stand erect at the end of the meetings and sing these songs with great emotional feeling."


However, despite all the efforts of activists and thousands of shelter men, it proved impossible to significantly improve conditions in Chicago's shelters. Pleading the necessity of "austerity" (to use contemporary language), political and economic authorities refused to divert substantially more resources to them.


And even when most of the shelters were shut down in 1935 and the men transferred to private quarters in rooming houses and tenements, the city's relief administration continued to be so poorly funded that it frequently could not pay the men's rent or provide them with adequate food or supplies. The second half of the 1930s saw crisis after crisis in the financing of relief, leaving thousands of people in dire want and misery.


The struggles of the unemployed to influence relief policy continued, but in the end it took World War II to finally solve their problems and raise their living standard.


Insofar as homeless shelters today are, in most cases, not as inhumane as those in the 1930s, we have decades of popular movements, popular pressure, and public-spirited advocacy to thank. Because of this, in fact, it is unlikely that most shelters will ever be allowed to sink to quite the level they were at in the Depression.


Instead, what will happen is that the loss of government funding will force more of them to close. Meanwhile, more people will require access to shelters because of long-term unemployment. The "shared sacrifices" and "tough decisions" that policymakers insist we must all accept because of government budget deficits will, as ever, disproportionately affect the poor, even as corporate profits remain at historic highs.


Whether we can distribute the economic sacrifices more equitably and so prevent history from repeating itself depends, ultimately, on whether we can build popular movements even greater than those that came to fruition during the Great Depression. At no time in our history has the task of "raising consciousness" been more urgent.

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