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Homeless men in the Great Depression

Here's another over-long blog post. It's a chapter from my dissertation, on homeless men during the Great Depression. I'm not sure it's one of the better chapters, but since homelessness is becoming such a scourge nowor rather, has been a scourge for at least forty yearsI thought I'd put it here anyway in case someone might be interested in the history. My purpose was to humanize these people who were, and are, frequently seen as subhuman.

“Shelter Men”: Life in Chicago's Public Shelters during the Great Depression

I got my first taste of shelter life at 758 West Harrison, where application for admission to the shelters is made. I had to stand around outside a while before the doorman would let me in. When I got inside the building I found a lot of men sitting on benches. They were cursing the shelter, the shelter men, and the case workers. One old man sitting near me complained with curses, ‘There’s too much cock-eyed red tape around this place. It’s getting worser and worser every time I come up here.’ A younger man confided to me, ‘It took a lot of courage for me to come into this place; in fact I came up here three times before I went in and then only when a couple of friends came along who had been in before.’[1]

So begins an undercover investigation of the Chicago shelters in the spring of 1935. The picture that emerges from this and similar accounts is, to say the least, damning. One reads of incredibly filthy bathrooms in one shelter, “plain dirt all over the floor, while urine that was old and strong smelling was running in small streams everywhere.” Garbage cans, overflowing and pungent, were pointedly placed beside the long breadlines in which the men shuffled to get meals, many of the shufflers regularly expectorating into filthy spittoons that were placed in prominent locations. Sleeping every night in a packed room with 25 other men was another hardship, especially considering the cacophony of “snoring, sneezing, moaning, sleep-talking, and coughing” that kept one awake for hours. “Last night one man coughed so loud and so long that he woke everyone up. Finally a fellow told him, ‘For Christ’s sake shut up or get to hell out of here!’” The blankets seemed to another reporter to be made of paper, which left the men shivering all night from drafts. Bedbugs and lice, fond of this environment, bit and crept all over their prey.[2]

There is good scholarship on the homeless in the Depression, but more can still be said about the conditions of shelters and inhabitants’ responses to them, in particular their resistance to their treatment.[3] The purpose of this chapter, then, is to humanize a category of people who were, and are, often treated as less than human merely because they lacked property. How did Chicago’s shelter men live, what were their backgrounds, what were their opinions and attitudes, how did the city’s relief policies evolve, and how did those subjected to these policies fight against them? Even the supposedly class-unconscious, apolitical, listless homeless population was capable of assertiveness.

The chapter will proceed as follows. First, I will give some information on the neighborhoods in which the homeless of Chicago mainly lived, near the Loop, after which I’ll sketch the relief administration as it applied to these “unattached” men and women. The bulk of the chapter, however, is focused on conditions in the men’s public shelters and how clients responded to them, how through individual and collective struggle they tried to make their lives more bearable.

Relief Administration

For decades, Chicago had teemed with the homeless. Hundreds of thousands of “tramps,” “hoboes,” and “bums” passed through the city every year, the distinction between the three categories being defined by the famous radical Ben Reitman in a pointed way: “the hobo works and wanders, the tramp dreams and wanders, and the bum drinks and wanders.” In addition to these types were the thousands of local homeless (many of them considered “bums”), who, like the traveling hordes, lived alternately in flophouses, shelters, lodging houses, cheap hotels, and the like. Many were casual laborers working regularly or irregularly at unskilled work, day labor, and odd jobs, but large numbers were unemployable due to physical or psychological disabilities. At any given moment, the number of homeless men in Chicago (including non-residents) ranged from 30,000 to 60,000, reaching 75,000 or more in times of recession.[4]

These numbers might not seem very high in a city of three million, but their concentration in a few areas around the Loop made the homeless and semi-homeless quite a visible population. One might even say that several prominent neighborhoods on all four sides of the Loop belonged to the (semi-)homeless. There was the West Madison Street district near the Chicago River, known to the denizens of “Hobohemia” as the slave market because it was here that most employment agencies were located, where the men sought information on jobs near and far. Beggars, peddlers, the disabled, gamblers—illegal gambling houses were often located on the second floor of taverns or furniture stores—bootleggers, casual laborers, and other such types all mingled here, where virtually no women or children were to be seen. It was to South State Street that the men went when they desired the company of women, for here was the playground: burlesque shows, cabarets, “Oriental” dancers. Men living in the cheap hotels and flophouses along this street and Van Buren or South Clark Streets were apt to take short jobs around the city periodically, a few hours a day, to accumulate just enough money to live on—vagabonds who had settled down and retired from the nomadic life, the “home guard” as they were contemptuously called by younger men still in thrall to wanderlust. This was also the area to which the relatively few homeless Black men gravitated.[5]

A third branch of Hobohemia was on North Clark Street and a few streets nearby, up north to Washington Square Park. Institutions that catered to the homeless and the “queer and exiled types” of the neighborhood proliferated: taverns, pawnshops, second-hand stores, cabarets, dozens of rooming houses and run-down hotels, pool halls, barber shops, and innumerable small dance halls where prostitutes picked up customers or lonely men might buy a ten-cent ticket to dance with a girl. “At night,” reported an investigator in 1929, “North Clark Street is a street of bright lights, of dancing, cabareting, drinking, gambling, and vice.” Washington Square Park was full of life as well, presenting quite a different aspect from its sanitized appearance today:[6]

By day its benches are filled with men reading newspapers, talking, or just sitting in the sun. But at night, crowded along its curbstones, are gathered groups of men, often as many as a hundred in a group, listening to the impassioned pleas of the soap-box orator, the propagandist, and the agitator. All their arguments come down to one or the other of two propositions: the economic system is all wrong, or there is no God… After getting down from the soap box the speaker often will pass the hat, making his living by reading up on some subject or other in the library during the day, and speaking at night… Because of the constant and violent agitation from its soap boxes, night after night, Washington Square has come to be known as “Bughouse Square.”[7]

In fact, while North Clark Street was the main drag of Hobohemia, much of the entire Near North Side swarmed with “derelicts” only a step or two ahead of outright homelessness. Bohemians, hoboes, prostitutes, and other types of non-conformists all rubbed shoulders with “marooned” families in rooming houses and immigrant families in tenement apartments, forming a great mass of unsettled humanity.[8]

East of the Loop, too, were encampments of homeless men. Hoboes lived in little “jungles” of improvised shacks behind the Field Museum, next to the lake; and Grant Park was a popular place to sit in the summer and talk or read the papers—or, on the section facing the lake, to wash one’s clothes, bathe, sew, and mend shoes. As we saw in the first chapter, these traditions continued in the early Depression but on a larger scale, when Hoovervilles colonized the park.[9]

On the eve of the Depression, then, there were several well-established communities of “the unattached” north, south, east, and west of the Loop—in addition to the hundreds of more atomized homeless people scattered around other neighborhoods, particularly on Chicago’s west side. To help provide for (some of) these men, free shelters were maintained in the 1920s and earlier by welfare organizations and religious agencies, such as the Salvation Army, the Christian Industrial League, and the Central Bureau of Catholic Charities. The religiously affiliated shelters were known as missions, since in return for food, beds, and some clothing the men were subject to appeals that they accept God in their lives, repent of their dissolute ways, and convert. Intermittently there were also municipal lodging houses run by the Department of Public Welfare, where men received a bed, two meals daily, and medical care. Until 1930, Chicago managed to make do on this somewhat haphazard arrangement.[10]

It was in autumn of 1930 that the swelling numbers of men applying for assistance necessitated a change in policy. A Clearing House for Homeless Men was established in late 1930, the function of which was to register the men who applied for assistance and assign them to a particular shelter. Civic groups and police distributed thousands of cards to panhandlers and unemployed men around the city directing them to the new Clearing House, with the result that a deluge of men soon descended upon the agency. Based on a short interview, each man was directed to one of the city’s permanent shelters or the seven emergency shelters operated by religious organizations and the Chicago Urban League, which ran one for Blacks. By late 1932, Chicago had 25 shelters for men, maintained by both private and public agencies and financed by the new Illinois Emergency Relief Commission (IERC). Most of them were located in the vicinity of West Madison Street’s Hobohemia.[11]

The number of people being cared for in these public shelters climbed from 12,000 in late 1931 to 35,000 in early 1933. Later in the decade it declined, to as few as 5,000 in June 1935 and only 100 a year later, when one shelter remained open in Chicago. It wasn’t that the economy was doing amazingly well by this point; rather, the administration of relief had changed. For one thing, some men had been transferred to WPA work camps. More importantly, nearly all were placed on home relief instead of shelter relief, because this was seen as less demoralizing than being herded like sheep in warehouses, old factory buildings, schools, and “cage hotels.”[12]

Statistical studies conducted at the time indicate who these men were who found themselves suddenly living (in most cases) in the old neighborhoods of Hobohemia, in many cases surrounded by alien elements—flophouses, burlesque houses, pickpockets. A report in 1935 suggests that around 10 percent were the old type of beggar and bum, 20 percent were a somewhat “higher” class of migratory laborer, and the rest were mostly skilled and unskilled workers based in Illinois. This heterogeneity of the shelter population necessitated attempts at classification and distribution of groups of men to particular shelters. Young men and boys were assigned to one shelter, middle-aged and able-bodied men to another group of shelters, white-collar workers to yet others, and so forth. The system was far from perfect, however, as a variety of men could be found in most of the shelters (except for the white-collar ones, where inhabitants were treated better and on a more individualized basis).[13]

While men constituted the vast majority of the “homeless,” thousands of women, too, were left adrift by the economic tsunami, which necessitated expansions of shelter care. Such care was known to be demoralizing, however, so as soon as the financial situation improved—with the entrance of the IERC and then, especially, FERA into the relief-financing business—the Service Bureau for Unemployed Women began to end the use of shelters and pay for its clients to live in their own domiciles until they found a job.[14]

Women’s shelters were quite different from men’s, far less impersonal and unpleasant. For one thing, they were smaller, frequently being women’s residence clubs that had been transformed for the purpose. More like dormitories than warehouses, they were relatively home-like, comfortable, and clean, in part because the residents themselves did housework in connection with their recreational and occupational therapy programs. They ate three meals a day, the same meals the staff was served. In fact, these shelters were generally pervaded by “a spirit of kindliness and consideration and an atmosphere of freedom” that male shelter clients could scarcely have imagined in their wildest dreams. What made such decent treatment possible was the fact that at any given time only hundreds, not tens of thousands, of non-family women were housed there.[15]

Chicago’s relief administration, like the entire country’s, was in flux the whole decade, as policymakers and bureaucrats managed the conflicting demands of the business community on the one hand, which tended to desire lower costs and more niggardly relief, and the unemployed and their advocates on the other, who fought for humane policies. In 1935 the latter group had a significant victory: most shelters were closed and the Service Bureaus for Men and Women abolished, their former “clients”—about 17,000 people at that point (almost all men)—being transferred to home relief, and hence to individual care. In principle, at least, this change was supposed to return single people to a more normal status in the community at the same time that it improved the quality of their care. The Unemployment Relief Service took over responsibility for the employables, while the Cook County Bureau of Public Welfare became responsible for the so-called unemployables.[16]

While relief administration evolved again in 1936, these changes of 1935 were permanent. There was never a return to the time when many thousands of men had to endure the miseries of “congregate care” in a few overcrowded buildings. From 1935 to 1942, only one or two public shelters remained; after 1942, even these were closed. The entire relief load of homeless men—only a few hundred by then—was again taken over by private agencies such as the Chicago Christian Industrial League and the Salvation Army, both of which maintained high-quality lodging houses with individualized treatment.[17]

In the following chapter we’ll consider the shameful history of Chicago and Illinois’s financing of relief, which demonstrates what a low priority the well-being of the unemployed was to the state’s political and economic elites. For now, let us turn to the experiences of the unfortunate men who found themselves confined to shelters.

Shelter Life

If this book is essentially a case-study in the truth that class struggle, both implicit and explicit, is the fulcrum of society, then the conditions in Depression-era shelters are a case-study in the callousness of the ruling class. Whatever the subjective intentions of policymakers might have been, their institutions functioned so as to treat the poor as criminals or animals, to punish them for the crime of being poor and thus potentially dangerous. A graphic illustration of this guiding value occurred in 1938, when the Chicago mayor and high officials in the Chicago Relief Administration and the police department endorsed the idea of fingerprinting all “inmates” (as they called them) of public shelters. It was thought that at least half the 2,100 men in the CRA’s two shelters would leave immediately if a fingerprinting expert appeared on the premises. The proposal was not enacted—probably because of questions about its legality, or simply the difficult logistics of carrying it out—but a month later Evanston put it into practice, quickly netting two one-time convicts. “Lock them up,” a police lieutenant ordered, “until we find out if they are wanted for crime.” This was a somewhat backward logic, but it is illustrative of authorities’ attitude towards the poor.[18]

It has been known for a long time that one of the main functions of relief is to discipline the labor force. That is to say, the frequent miserliness of relief policies, the degradation into which they have forced those among the poor who could not find employment, has—in the words of sociologists Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward[19]—served the purpose of enforcing work norms. “Work hard, work constantly, and get by on your own resources,” the lower classes are admonished, “for if you don’t, this is what awaits you!” Indeed, historically provisions for poor relief and for punishment of criminals have sometimes overlapped.[20] It should hardly surprise us, therefore, that even in the mid-1930s, when mass popular unrest was forcing expansions of public welfare programs, relief remained grotesquely inadequate. Nor is it surprising that this fact was most dramatically manifested in the case of the “dangerous” population of unattached men who had lost the means to live in their own home.

The reader can doubtless imagine that life in Chicago’s shelters was no utopia, but it may be worthwhile to give some details. One way to characterize these institutions is that they were, in effect, designed to turn their residents into “bums,” as a Tribune article put it. Given that few major changes were ever made in these shelters, the natural conclusion is that they successfully served their purposes as determined by the governments that funded them and the relief administration that ran them, an administration that itself was subject to pressures from the conservative business community. To the degree that it occurred, the transformation of men from active shapers of their own destinies into hopeless derelicts whose self-worth had been crushed not only crippled the spirit of rebellion in a disaffected group of men; it also provided a pretext to publicly demonize them (as the Tribune did, for example), to demonize public relief itself and argue for its dismantling, and to tar and feather, by association, the lower classes in general. It reinforced class prejudice and the Social Darwinistic self-justifications of the wealthy at the same time that it made more docile and compliant tens of thousands of men. From this perspective, shelter relief exemplified class politics.

Consider the testimony, from 1935, of an “inmate” of Chicago shelters:

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.[21]

It is true that some people received better treatment. The few white-collar clients, mostly clerks and salesmen, lived in buildings that had been designed for residential purposes, and so were relatively comfortable. One or two men might sleep in a room, in some cases the kind of room in certain flophouses: a square wooden cubicle with chicken-wire mesh on top to prevent stealing and to let in air. These tiny rooms were the opposite of luxury, but at least they afforded some privacy. Furthermore, the beds actually had mattresses, sheets, and pillows. Men in the non-white-collar shelters had to sleep on an uncomfortable canvas army cot, usually without a sheet or a pillow; and when they did have a sheet, it was unlikely to have been washed in months and might be soiled with blood or fecal matter. For a short period (until funding ran out) some white-collar men were even allowed to live in their own rooms and were given $4 a week in return for one day’s work, so as to reintegrate themselves into their community. And yet despite such perquisites, caseworkers remarked that these higher-status clients were apt to have an even more adverse reaction to shelter life than those with more humble backgrounds.[22]

Shelter inmates’ hardships began immediately, as soon as they stepped inside the intake center and began the hours-long wait for a two-minute medical examination. Interrogation by a caseworker was the next step—a rather pointless step in light of the fact that nearly every applicant was always accepted. One applicant gave a spirited complaint about this procedure: “Hell, they want to know when your grandmother died, what she died of, and why did ya let her die. They ask you a few questions, get up and chew the fat with someone, then maybe come back and ask a few more questions. Boy, when you go through all that red tape to get in here and swear that pauper’s oath, and swear you’ve told the truth when you have told several lies, you’ve touched bottom. There’s no pride left.”[23]

The physical facilities of most shelters, bare and dreary, were not calculated to lift the spirits. Typically there was a recreation room in which people could sit and play cards or dominoes or other games, or stand or sit on the floor because the room was overcrowded, full of all types of men—native and foreign-born, the bum and the skilled tradesman, the ex-clerk and the ex-convict, even Black and white—packed together.[24] Not much recreating went on here, though, as is clear from the following description of one such room (which was written, admittedly, in that most terrible year 1932):

In the auditorium was [a] group of men. If one walked among them, one was conscious of their apathy. One could feel their hopelessness and misery. Some were dozing on the seats. Others were lying asleep on the platform. A few checker games were in progress. Infrequently, a card game went on in a corner… One noticed a certain stillness in the place. It did not seem possible that so many men could be gathered together without some noise. Then the thought struck home that these men, for the most part, were not talking. They were sitting in dejected silence, and those who were talking did so quietly.
The day’s search for work had proved hopeless. There was nothing to do but tramp the streets or sit and brood, no money to buy amusement for the empty hours…[25]

The recreation room, however, could be called pleasant compared to the “bull pen,” a dark, damp, dismal place located in the basement. Littered with cigarette butts, wads of chewing tobacco, and discarded clothing, it had no furniture except some backless benches. Here was where men could escape supervision, where they could smoke, spit on the floor, drink, or sleep off a hangover. It was also where men were sent to be punished, if, say, they had failed to show up for fumigation that night, or if they had returned to the shelter intoxicated. During the day, the bull pen was frequently occupied by fifty or a hundred men dozing on the benches or the floor because they had been unable to sleep the previous night. “The great majority of them,” reported an investigator, “do not appear to be sleeping off a drunk, but rather merely so weary in body and in spirit that the oblivion of sleep offers them a haven.”[26]

The sleeping rooms were so densely packed with cots that it was sometimes necessary for the occupant to crawl in from the head or the foot of the bed—which violated state health regulations. And then, having gone to bed at 8:00 or 9:00 p.m., the occupant spent the night trying to get to sleep, until awoken at 5:30 or 6:30 a.m. Among the annoyances he would have to endure were the stuffiness of the air, the stench, the cold drafts from outside, the sizzling and cracking of steam in the pipes, the quarrels over opening or closing a window—“Put that window down!,” “Put that damn window up!”—and of course the lice. If he was sick in the morning he would be forced out of bed anyway and denied access to the sleeping room until 7:00 p.m., when it was opened again.[27]

The health service seems to have been fairly well-organized, though the care provided was not always satisfactory. Each shelter had an infirmary, where a physician worked up to two hours a day and an orderly was present 24 hours daily. Medicine could usually be obtained from supplies at the infirmary, where there was also some (inadequate) provision for bed care. The Clearing House opened a small central infirmary in November 1931 for emergency cases and convalescents from all the shelters; by 1934 it had more resources than all the shelters’ infirmaries combined. A psychiatrist was even added to the staff that year, in recognition of the thousands of shelter inhabitants who were mentally unbalanced or depressed; but the large majority of these cases could not even be examined, much less treated. There is reason to think, too, that a great many undiagnosed cases of tuberculosis existed among the shelter men, in light of the constant spitting and coughing of many of them.[28]

In addition to medical care, clients were offered miscellaneous personal services for free, such as barber service, shoe repair, and tailor service. Unfortunately, they were never adequate to meet the needs of the majority, especially since the staff had privileged access to them. The shoe repair service, for example, must have been constantly overcrowded, because the shoes that the men were supplied with were of low quality, causing blisters and infections. Clothing, too, was of “extremely poor quality,” to quote the Director of the Clearing House for Men, even after a Central Clothing Depot had been set up in May 1932. Prior to this, the clothing issued by the various shelters had been ill-fitting; the establishment of a central depot at least helped address this problem. But even then, clothing appropriations amounted to a dollar per year for each man—$50,000 for 50,000 men during the year 1931–32. What this meant concretely was described in 1934:[29]

Even the most casual observer of the men in the shelter must notice how ragged the clothing of a large proportion of the men is. Some of them appear almost scarecrow-like; with knees visible through trouser legs too far worn to repair; with trouser seats patched and repatched with contrasting colors; with shirts so frayed and tattered that it is difficult to understand how they remain in one piece; and coats or sweaters so threadbare as to be no protection at all against the cold… Fully three-quarters of the men in [one] shelter appeared to be so disreputably clothed that their appearance would label them as “bums.”[30]

Meal service, too, tended to be inadequate the whole decade. Until November 1934, most shelters served only two meals 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. One Chicagoan wrote of his experience early in the Depression: “After breakfast at our [shelter] we would hurry over to another charity where we got some more soup and bread. Then we legged it forty-seven blocks to the South Side where a church dispensed coffee and bread. From thence we rushed back nineteen blocks to another church which started feeding [lunch] at eleven. If lucky, we got around in time to get a second [lunch] at another place two miles further uptown. That left us about two hours in mid-afternoon to rest, to panhandle tobacco money, or to read such scraps of old newspapers as we were able to pick up.”[31]

The quality of the food served at shelters was uneven. Particularly in the early years of the Depression, it was common for the food to be rotten or bug-ridden. On paper, the menu could look appealing, featuring fish, potatoes, beef, biscuits, vegetables, and coffee. In practice, it tended to be bland at best, as a reporter described his supper of cold beets, a tin soup bowl of beef stew, a tin mug of weak coffee, and unbuttered bread. Under tremendous pressure from social workers, activists, and the shelter men themselves, meal service was improved in 1934, most significantly by the addition of lunch, but also by providing a more varied menu. Nevertheless, the essence of the whole depressing meal-time experience remained: a man had no choice in what to eat; he was assigned to a particular seat (a spot on one of the long backless benches in the dining room), possibly next to people whose table manners he found revolting; he simply shoveled in the food quickly and without conversation, mindful of the men still waiting outside; and to eat he first had to shamble along in a serpentine line for up to two-and-a-half hours, three times a day.[32]

All things considered, the central fact of shelter life was regimentation. One author summed it up: “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. Watchmen were always present to intimidate and challenge the men, especially drunks, who were frequently beaten—with clubs, sawed-off baseball bats, or lead pipes—and forced outside even in the cold night air. Signs posted on the walls warned, “Don’t Loiter Here—This Means You,” “Keep Quiet and Listen,” and “Keep Out,” this last with an illustration of a fist striking a nose. “The place has approximately the same effect as a jail,” remarked a reporter. “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.”[33]

An observer of shelter life might have concluded that the whole point of the program was to infantilize the men, to deprive them of initiative and individuality. A total bureaucracy regulated every aspect of their lives, except in the hours every day that they spent on the streets. To make sure that inmates did not have to use their mind even to remember procedures and duties, bulletins with instructions were posted all over the building. The structural ideal was a kind of totalitarianism, power’s penetration of every recess of the mind to break down the personality and reduce it to the lowest common denominator, the apathetic former job seeker, the inarticulate bum, the broken old man—to isolate and make anonymous, to fill with resentment and consciousness of inferiority. In some cases, “spies” even circulated among the inmates to learn of opinions and happenings, a fact that only heightened the atmosphere of distrust and suspicion. The rule of impersonality so shaped the men’s minds that they seldom cared to learn each other’s names, seldom inquired of past lives or personal business. Many preferred not to talk at all but to sit alone, as they worried there was no escape from the “hopeless maelstrom.” Perhaps ironically, the non-Hobohemians—the white-collar workers, the skilled tradesmen, the steady unskilled workers—were frequently more despondent about the future than the habitual Hobohemians. Their fate, it seemed, was to become “shelterized,” to internalize the bureaucracy.[34]

Even work relief, which social workers and some administrators hoped would empower and help “rehabilitate” clients, often did not have the desired effect. Beginning in June 1932, it took the form of projects for the Cook County Department of Highways and the Chicago Bureau of Streets, maintenance work done in the shelters, and, in the case of some white-collar clients, clerical and professional work for the Chicago Public Library and the Board of Education. All men except the disabled and those who served on the shelter staff were required to work one five-hour day for each thirteen days of meals and lodging. Technically their five hours of labor got them $3.25 in credit for shelter relief plus 25 cents in cash, but since they had already been receiving shelter relief for free in the preceding years, it seemed to many that they were really being paid only five cents an hour. They considered themselves slave laborers. “[This is] worse than slavery,” a Black man complained to a labor reporter. “The officials order us around like prisoners. Slaves were worth money. The owners wanted them to live so they could work. Here they don’t care if you’re sick or if you die.” Nor did it help that the character of the work was not exactly edifying: even many white-collar men, not to mention the others, had to do such “made-work drudgery” (as they disgustedly called it) as cleaning spittoons, sweeping floors, shoveling snow, and cleaning trash-filled alleys. This work-relief program continued until the summer of 1935.[35]

It is true that some men appreciated the opportunity to feel at least moderately useful. And they all did appreciate the 25 cents with which they could buy a razor, soap, a lunch, or, in some cases, alcohol and sex with a prostitute. In an environment as degraded as the one described here, the little pleasures that could be bought with 25 cents would assume outsized importance, as precious links to the world of the living.

The Men

While the shelters tended to function, in effect, as devices of dehumanization, the men who found it necessary to live in them did not thereby cease to be men. At times they even organized to change practices, with some success; and their experiences gave most of them a definitely left-of-center political consciousness. They did not become only an undifferentiated mass of cattle, as they were frequently thought of, but remained individuals with their own distinctive pasts and futures, and personalities.

So, first of all, what were their pasts? Who were these men? By 1932 there were over fifty different nationalities and cultural groups represented in the shelters; 60 percent of the people were American, after which the most common group, constituting 7 percent, was Polish. Of all the continental European immigrants, who were about 30 percent of the total, the Central European peasant was most highly represented. On the whole, half of the men had already been accustomed to the Hobohemian culture, being either “bums” (habitual drunks, beggars, etc.), migratory laborers, or casual laborers rooted in Chicago, nearly all of whom had lived in flophouses and lodging houses in the main stem of Hobohemia. For the other half, including the steadier type of unskilled worker, it was more or less traumatizing to find themselves suddenly living with bums or—if he was an American—“damn foreigners.”[36]

As we have seen, the Hobohemians’ background was of raw living in the kaleidoscopic neighborhoods of West Madison, North Clark, and South State Streets. All ages, nationalities, and occupations, including some skilled and white-collar workers, were seen here—indeed, were seen even just on West Madison Street, which had a magnetic energy that both repelled and attracted. Its habitués were apt to swear, “I’m going to get off this goddamn street soon”—away from the petty racketeers, the drug peddlers, the drunks and their predators the jack-rollers (whose pastime consisted of beating up drunks and stealing from them)—and they might even succeed in getting away for a couple of weeks, but almost always they returned, with the self-reproach, “I’ll be damned if I can stay away—what it is, I don’t know.” Part of it was the inexpensiveness of the area, where meals could be had for 15 or 20 cents. More important, though, was the companionship that could be found in the hotels and lodging houses, and the hash houses and restaurants. “Who the hell wants to stay out in a furnished room by himself?” remarked one man. “I’d die of lonesomeness.”[37]

The people who lived on such streets were likely to prize their independence, thinking of themselves, in fact, as much more free and independent than their socially esteemed “betters” in the middle class, who were tied down by marriage and the whole mundane existence of the mainstream. Often traveling all over the country, working as harvest hands, railroad laborers, lumberjacks, truckers, waiters in cheap restaurants, stevedores, or just panhandling and doing odd jobs, the young and middle-aged men were wont to have a sort of defiant pride, a “don’t-give-a-damn” attitude (tinged with a certain sensitivity) about how the outside world viewed them. Conscious that they were seen as low-lifes, they regularly insisted to themselves and others, “I ain’t a damned bum!” This stubborn pride and love of freedom manifested itself in Hobohemians’ sometimes being even more intolerant of the regimentation and dependence of shelter life than non-Hobohemians: whenever they could, they left the shelters for flophouses or lodging houses, where they didn’t have to wake up, go to bed, and eat at prescribed times, or stand in long lines most of the day. This was especially true of “professional beggars” (technically a different category than bums)—who, incidentally, worked as hard at their jobs as many a skilled worker.[38]

Having had less exposure to indoctrination by the dominant culture than many non-Hobohemians, these people tended, arguably, to be more independent-minded and realistic in their views about life and society than their middle-class counterparts were. Their attitudes had emerged relatively organically from their material conditions, and persisted through the years spent in shelters. Living hard, precarious lives ever on the edge of want, familiar with the policeman’s glare and even his truncheon, expert in the ways of individualized and improvisatory class struggle, “hobos” and their kin built their worldview on the foundation of a granite cynicism. Everything was a “racket”—religion, politics, business, relief administration. Missions, for instance, were not at all popular for their treatment of their homeless beneficiaries as a captive audience that had to endure hours of sermons and prayers in order to get mediocre food. “Something that should be put out of business,” grumbled one shelter inmate, a middle-aged American who had been a migratory steam shovel operator, “is all missions and churches. What the hell good are they anyway? They don’t produce nothing. They are just like banks. They’re parasites.” The fact that, according to one study, about 40 percent of men in shelters seldom or never attended church because of disbelief or indifference to religion (as opposed to the 40 percent who had other reasons for not attending, such as poor clothing and lack of money) suggests just how anti-religious Hobohemia was; for the skilled and unskilled workers with steadier jobs more regularly attended church, at least when they had jobs.[39]

Politics may have been even more an object of derision than religion. In the political sphere, the deeply materialistic and realistic worldview of most Hobohemians manifested itself in two different attitudes: a far-left hostility to the dominant social order, and a cynicism about getting involved with politics at all. In the rare cases when these men voted, for example, they were apt to sell their vote to the highest bidder. “I might as well give my vote to the one who will pay me the most, for what does it matter?” one protested. “You’ll only get a rimming either way. They have you coming and going. The poor man doesn’t have a chance in this country; the cards are stacked against him.”[40]

The other political attitude, the left-wing radicalism, had been most pronounced in the heyday of Hobohemia before the 1920s, when the IWW was at its height. A dense and vital counterculture had thrived nationwide, nourished by radical newspapers (Appeal to Reason, Industrial Worker, Hobo News, Solidarity, Liberator, Voice of Labor, etc.), socialist literature (migratory workers were smitten with Jack London but also read Marx and Engels, Lewis Morgan, Paul Lafargue, Antonio Labriola, and the like), songs by Joe Hill and other Wobblies, an entire folklore that glorified manly independence and resistance, and such institutions as left-wing unions, radical bookstores, Bughouse Square and its duplicates in Los Angeles and elsewhere, and clubs like the famous Dill Pickle Club in Chicago (where hoboes, artists, and intellectuals could meet). All this declined in the 1920s, under the impact of wartime and postwar repression, the “machine age,” and the increasingly settled character of communities. Nevertheless, Hobohemia was far from finished by the 1930s, and neither was its left-wing, even anarchist, ethos. Casual workers with the attitudes of Carl Kolins, the steam shovel operator quoted above, were still easy to find, even in the public shelters that functioned so as to beat the spirit out of a man:[41]

…Another thing I don’t like about the [Chicago] Tribune is that they’re always rapping Roosevelt. To read the Tribune you would think communism was a kind of deadly poisoning. Well, it is to those big fat grafters. They’ve got all the money they want—that’s why they don’t want communism or a liberal government. They want to keep us on the bum… [The radio priest Father Coughlin] is pretty good as far as he goes but, of course, he don’t want communism, though he is preaching the same thing except that he wants to keep the churches in. Naturally, he would, otherwise that would spoil his racket.[42]

Doubtless the Communist organizers who tried to reach men in shelters and flophouses, and the Party newspapers the Daily Worker and the Hunger Fighter, had something to do with such opinions. And it is true that many other Hobohemians were far from identifying as radicals, whom they called “wobblies,” “dirties,” and “chiselers.” The point is that the ideological background of this swath of shelter inmates was broadly left-wing, far more leftist, more laborite, than the Democratic Party under Roosevelt. Even the men who were scornful of “radicals” tended to share their views about how American society operated and how it ought to operate. Understandably disillusioned with the political and economic system, these self-professed patriots would express their alienation by saying things like, “Give the country back to the Indians,” and discussing such left-wing ideas as “production for use” with enthusiastic approbation.

Of course, when one is a migratory laborer or a “home-guard” casual worker, politics is not one’s primary interest. Consider the following story of a typical immigrant who found himself in Chicago’s public shelter system, having run out of ways to “cheat” the institutionalizing momentum of the economic system:

When I live in Mexico…I work on farm. In 1916 I say I come here. I work on Santa Fe railroad in Kansas City. I work there six month and live in a camp. In 1917 I hear an epidemic of flu kill father, mother, and all my family.
I earn $1.65 a day on railroad in Kansas City. In winter I go to Montana and work on the Burlington six months. Then I went to Philadelphia on Pennsylvania Railroad. This job hold no more…
In 1921 I get job in Congress Hotel [in Chicago]. I work there eight or nine years washing. In 1930 I still work in Congress Hotel, then I get laid off.
When I work on railroad, I live in camp with all the men. When I work in city like Congress Hotel, I live in rooming house… I start going around to look for work when I no work because I have no money to pay rent. No want landlord put me out. Come out by myself. When I can find no job, I have no place to go, so I go straight to shelter.[43]

The non-Hobohemian portion of the shelter population was similarly heterogeneous, but its members had tended to have more stable work and be less mobile than the others. Still, one cannot draw a firm line between the two categories. Often the non-Hobohemians’ path to the shelter had begun with marital problems such as divorce, separation, or the death of a wife, which might result in excessive drinking or depression and the loss of incentives to work. Physical disabilities or injuries were the decisive factor in other cases.[44]

For these people, the decision to apply to shelters was frequently agonizing, signifying as it supposedly did their failure, their complete defeat and “social death.” Shelter men were certainly more prone to self-blame than the rest of the unemployed. “If I hadn’t been such a fool in the past,” a common sentiment went, “I would have had a job at the present time, or at least I would have had some money saved up.” “If I had let drink alone I would have been all right.” As one of the down-and-out, it was hard not to at least partly absorb the dominant society’s contemptuous attitude towards the down-and-out.[45]

And yet, again, the self-blame was usually united with disgust for authority and a blaming of one’s problems on the fact that everything was a racket. (This was an idea that Communist organizers and newspapers spread, e.g., by arguing that the relief administration was graft-ridden.)[46] One man, for instance, prefaced an expression of self-contempt with a spirited critique of the relief administration:

As far as the shelter is concerned, it ain’t so bad—but the management. They’re all a bunch of damn rats, all of them without exception. If you understand the relief system it’s all based on graft, and all these case workers around here give a damn about is to draw their salary and make it as tough as possible for us, and the more they can squeeze out of us and the less they can give us, that’s just that much more for their own pockets… The food is terrible. You have got to line up like a bunch of pigs and wait for hours at a time to get a dish full of that slop they throw at you—self-respecting hogs wouldn’t eat it. Though, of course, it’s good enough for us stiffs. Who are we anyway? We are nothing.[47]

This was stated by a man familiar with Hobohemia, but it was an attitude that quickly spread to most people after they had entered the shelter. Their former respect for authority—qualified and partial as it was—gave way to a consciousness of being oppressed and exploited (in work relief), and a belief in the fundamental irrationality of a social order that would deprive so many healthy men of productive pursuits. A type of radicalization tended to take place, even without sustained exposure to Communist organizers and publications. If a man felt that he had become a bum, he often blamed it on the shelters, not himself. “The shelters made a lousy bum out of me” was a common refrain. It became a general idea that the profit system had to be changed so as to provide work and security for the laboring class; men who made radical statements were widely applauded, though only a minority subscribed to Communism. (Most took the view that this ideology was unrealistic and its adherents deceived about political possibilities in the United States.) Even those who had once been religious adopted the Hobohemian attitude: “the general consensus [in the shelters],” writes one investigator, “is that all religion is to be classed along with charity organizations as a racket.” In fact, some researchers who lived in the shelters as clients were themselves susceptible to the left-wing collective consciousness: “All one hears around this place is a constant discussion of government, the relief racket, and economic conditions until it naturally gets on one’s nerves and soon gets him down until he just sits back and waits for something to happen.”[48]

And things did happen. In the early years of the Depression, when the Communist Party was most active in organizing the unemployed, well-attended meetings were held at many shelters. For a long time, the auditorium in the Newberry Shelter was the scene of almost nightly meetings of an Unemployed Council committee, which functioned in part as a grievance committee that intervened with management on behalf of the inmates. According to one observer, the Communists had a “large following” among the men and “exercised a potent influence over them.” Part of the attraction of the meetings was simply that they provided entertainment and opportunities for self-expression, as well as for solidarity and a sense of belonging. But it is clear that many of the attendees substantially agreed with the ideas on offer—the importance of class consciousness, of fighting for workers’ rights, of building a movement against capitalism, and more specifically of fighting to improve conditions in the shelters. “At the conclusion of the meetings,” the observer noted, “the radical songs are sung—‘Solidarity,’ ‘We’ll Hang Hoover to a Sour Apple Tree,’ and the ‘Marseillaise.’ Misguided as it perhaps all is, 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.”[49]

Nor was it only a matter of meeting and singing. Shelter inmates organized to change administrative practices, and sometimes their efforts met with success. One of the few records of such activities is the Hunger Fighter, which periodically published short notices on “flophouse” victories. In December 1931, for example, the paper reported that 200 men and boys at one shelter were granted some concessions when they overturned the tables in the cafeteria and threw the “slop” onto the floor, shouting that they wouldn’t starve to death quietly. At other shelters grievance committees were formed to present demands to the administration: three meals served every day; a more appetizing menu; the provision of chewing and smoking tobacco twice a week for all men; and 18 inches of space between beds. A couple of months later the paper advertised a few small victories, as when the Salvation Army was forced to fire a chef and serve better food, and when at another shelter the chairman of the flophouse committee showed the superintendent that there were bugs in the food, which convinced him to order healthier meat. In early 1932 a dramatic incident took place: several patrol wagons of police with tear gas and guns forced 500 men out of a shelter run by the Chicago Christian Industrial League after they had voted 493 to 7 against religious services, which they were being forced to listen to every night. And so it went at shelter after shelter in these years—especially 1930–33—of radical ferment. The Hunger Fighter and the activities of Communists were well-known to, and well-feared by, relief administrators, as shown, for instance, by the time when an inmate’s clothing was destroyed by sulphur fumigation and he demanded new clothes, to no effect. “Okay,” he told the superintendent, “I’ll tell the reporter for the Hunger Fighter about this.” “No, no, not that!” the superintendent replied, and found a sweater, shirt, and coat for him.[50]

In May 1932 there was a notable victory: after a shelter on Morgan Street was closed, the 400 homeless people who had lost a place to live sent delegations to the Central Clearing House for Men. The administrators there realized that the men would not be “bulldozed” so easily (to quote the Hunger Fighter) and offered to take them all back.[51]

Men did not need Communist organizers to inspire them to take action. Despite the paucity of records of collective action in the shelters, a few suggestive stories remain. Here is one from a report in The Nation in August 1934:

In South Chicago a bunch of sailors did shake off the shackles of the shelters. Twenty-five lake men, on the beach at Calumet Harbor, decided they didn’t like the flop-house [i.e., the public shelter]. They protested to the shelter manager, who threatened to call the police. They took their protest to the relief commission and sat down in the commission office, promising to stay there. Lake sailors are big, brawny lads, recruited from the farms of Illinois and Michigan and Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the relief commission needed its chairs. Now the seamen have their own shelter in South Chicago, run by themselves, financed by the FERA. Any case worker who goes near it must be prepared to answer rather than ask questions.[52]

There is no telling how many similar incidents of collective resistance took place, even years after the heady days of 1932. On New Year’s Day that year, 200 men, disgusted at the particularly bad shelter food that night, went to restaurants and ate large meals without paying. A number of them were arrested, even after railroad workers present had offered to pay for the meals.[53]

The highpoint of Communist influence in the shelters was probably in the spring of 1932, when, according to a former Communist, “it was very easy to organize a demonstration because all you had to do was send word through the flophouses that something is taking place and inside of a half hour you had ten thousand people out in the streets.” This was surely an exaggeration, but it is a telling statement anyway. Almost two thousand homeless people held memberships in shelter committees at this time, and many more attended the meetings. As we’ll see in a later chapter, working-class neighborhoods of Chicago in these months and years burst with class consciousness of both explicit and implicit types, which easily spread to—indeed, partly originated in—the Hobohemian districts and even many formerly middle-class people who now lived in them. Few shelter men were committed to a Marxist ideology, but the majority were deeply aware of an antagonism of interests between authorities—economic, political, administrative—and the working or unemployed poor. Their own experiences had taught them this antagonism; Communist propaganda only drove the point home, heightened their awareness, and encouraged them to act on it.[54]

The whole question of “class consciousness” that comes up in historical scholarship—‘How class-conscious were the workers?,’ ‘Why weren’t they more conscious or militant?’—has, perhaps, a rather straightforward answer. While few were educated in the niceties of Marxian theory, the working-class unemployed of Chicago, and the homeless, tended to be quite aware of class, and even, on some level, of the importance of solidarity in order to achieve gains. A researcher of Chicago’s shelters in 1935 observed that “If one goes into the assembly room on an afternoon or evening, he will hear men giving the capitalistic system hell in a big way. A dozen cure-alls are suggested as immediate remedies for the depression—communism, socialism, take the profits out of business, immediate payment of the soldiers’ bonus, old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, government work projects, and the like.” All such ideas were “in the air” at the time, and people were well aware of them and their premise, class conflict. One did not have to have incredible insight or belong to some revolutionary vanguard in order to understand, on some level, one’s class interests and the imperative to stand up and fight against the “boss class.” Franklin Roosevelt’s denunciation of “economic royalists,” after all, was not exactly an unpopular stance, in light of his crushing victory over Alf Landon in the 1936 presidential election. If most shelter inmates did not engage in continual struggles to influence relief policy or to defend the rights of the poor, it was not necessarily because they were incurably “apathetic”; it was because the task of organizing large numbers of people is not easy, requiring energy and stamina that one no longer possesses after years spent in a public shelter. Furthermore, these people, naturally, were more interested in concrete improvements in their lives than an abstract ideology aimed at a distant future. Thus, to the extent that mass demonstrations and flophouse committee meetings did not substantially improve conditions, men drifted away from them.[55]

But adherence to left-wing ideas and participation in “direct action” were not the only ways of asserting oneself in a demoralizing environment. In fact, the restlessness and protests of shelter inmates in late 1931 and early 1932 led to an important new program that ameliorated boredom: authorities created a Special Activities Division that could provide the men with some recreation and education, thereby, supposedly, rectifying the conditions that caused them to be “the ready prey of the agitator,” as an administrator said. Beginning in early 1932, the new department expanded during the next few years to the point that, by 1934, it conducted “motion picture shows, stereopticon lectures, vaudeville shows, boxing and wrestling exhibitions, orchestral entertainment, community songs, educational classes, handicraft activities, athletic competitions, games of various descriptions, libraries, and debates.” It operated in each shelter, and not only as entertainment: the homeless themselves staffed the programs—not least because it was discovered that among them were musicians, song-and-dance men, and specialty performers. In fact, in April 1932 these men expanded their performances beyond the shelters, putting on a two-week-running minstrel show for the public called “The Breadline Frolics.” Sponsored by eighty civic and social clubs, the show was enormously popular, being covered by newspapers from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times. Aside from the thousands of dollars it raised, its most significant function may have been to apprise the public of the very real talent and intelligence that, because of the economy’s dysfunction, were consigned to shelters.[56]

The relatively active recreations, especially sports, were most popular with the younger men. During the winter it was ping pong, basketball, and boxing: for example, in two of the shelters “a number of boxing bouts and music and novelty acts staged in one of the congested and ill-ventilated basements would shake the rafters and induce long rounds of spontaneous applause.” In the summer it was outdoor sports: four shelters had baseball teams (Newberry had eight of them) and all had at least one softball team; twenty horse-shoe courts were maintained; and handball and volleyball games were popular at a number of shelters.[57]

It was also the younger men who were most interested in discussion groups and classes, especially the vocational ones—typewriting, shorthand, bookkeeping, etc. All categories of inmates, however, made frequent use of the shelter libraries (sometimes even the city libraries), despite the dim lighting and poor conditions. Thousands of books and magazines were donated every month to the Clearing House, which circulated them among the shelters. Newspapers and pulp magazines were by far the most popular, but technical and scientific literature was not ignored. A sympathetic reporter, impressed by the popularity of reading, pithily summarized its appeal to the homeless: “Reading provides an escape from the sordid and depressing situation of the shelters into the world of imagination. A story enables a man to identify himself with the successful hero of the tale, and serious study enables him to live in the future possibility of a higher and better status.” It should be recalled that workers, even the homeless, in the United States had always been avid readers. As the Chicago sociologist Nels Anderson stated in 1923, “The homeless man is an extensive reader. This is especially true of the transients, the tramp, and the hobo. The tramp employs his leisure to read everything that comes his way. If he is walking along the railroad track, he picks up the papers that are thrown from the trains… If he is in the city, he hunts out some quiet corner where he may read.” Such traditions continued in the shelters, including among immigrants, who liked to read papers in their native language.[58]

A common practice was for men to leave the shelters early in the morning and walk to the nearest “L” station to get the morning newspaper. So many of them had the same idea that they had to stand in line at the station exit, where departing passengers would hand their own copy over. Some of the men collected many papers this way, whereupon they returned to the shelter and sold each for a penny; but most simply took one for their own use, to pass the time and to maintain some connection to their old life.[59]

On the whole, even after the creation of the Special Activities Department, the principal forms of recreation remained extra-institutional and anti-institutional, the activities most conducive to escape from collective anhedonia: drinking, gambling, and visiting prostitutes. In a class-structured world, these were what was left those on the wrong side of the divide.

Gambling, for example, was far more than an act of desperation or despair: it was a positive source of excitement, hope, and intellectual stimulation. Having been exiled from social, political, and cultural life, shelter inmates enthusiastically embraced gambling as one of the remaining means of expressing themselves and resisting the complete extinction of their identity. “The gambling habit has been accentuated since shelter entrance,” a researcher writes in 1935. “The men are necessarily limited to small stakes, but they express as much enthusiasm and use as much energy in their gambling as do the patrons of expensive gambling houses.” Card playing and, especially, betting on horse races were the most common activities, the latter being done either among the men themselves—betting with razor blades, cigarettes, and other small items—or at cheap gambling places on West Madison Street. To quote an investigator,

The men consume much time and energy in doping the races. They pour [sic] over racing literature and racing results in the newspapers and talk for hours on the relative merits of the various horses, the ability of certain jockeys, the condition of the track, the crookedness of the stables and jockeys, and the odds on the horses. On the basis of their reading, conversation, and knowledge of the races, even though they may have little or no money to bet, they have a great time doping out how one should place his bets.[60]

Clearly this activity was engaged in for creative purposes as much as acquisitive ones. As in the case of “policy” among Blacks, elaborate systems were devised for placing the right bets. For some men, gambling became an obsession. “Such men eat horses, sleep horses, and talk horses all day long”: in fact, the races gave them a reason to live. “If it wasn’t for the fact that the pony players always hope and constantly look for a future change in luck,” a shelter inmate observed, “many of them would commit suicide.”[61]

There were other comforts too, however, such as visiting prostitutes. Sex-starvation was a curse for many of the men. “I tell you that I feel sick when I am away from women,” one man said. “I am a married man, a father of children, and even the sight of a woman is helpful to me.” One solution, widely adopted, was masturbation. Another was to engage in homosexual practices, though probably less than 10 percent of the men turned to this form of relief. Some were able to drain their dammed lust by going on long walks the entire day, ten miles out and ten miles in, which so tired them that they gave little thought to women. Others chose a more immediate type of sublimation: ogling women in parks and on beaches. Oak Street Beach was a mecca for these men; they would spend much of the day there, sitting and dreaming and “wondering if the big blonde will come again today.” Young men even bought swimsuits and flirted with the girls, their self-confidence intact despite shelter life.[62]

Of course, the most satisfying relief was actual sex, usually with prostitutes. It is impossible to know how many men, and with what frequency, resorted to this expedient, but a study in 1935 of 400 randomly selected men found that 40 percent made visits to prostitutes or other women, the average frequency being about once in six weeks. At between 25 cents and a dollar or two, these were prostitutes of a low status, sometimes middle-aged—but “an old woman isn’t so bad after her nose is powdered”—and not rarely willing to rob their clients of whatever they could, even false teeth.[63]

Of the three “vices” in which shelter men most often indulged, drinking was the most widespread. Perhaps even more than gambling, drinking among the homeless was and is widely considered somehow pathetic or stupid, proving them to be worthless bums, since supposedly they should be using the money they get from begging and other sources to buy food or invest in their future. People rarely stop to reflect that after years of discouragement and alienation, one may simply want to feel good from time to time. Ordinarily, for those in the middle class, drinking alcohol is nothing but a means to have fun; for shelter inmates, however, it was more than that. It can be thought of as a form of escape, but a more interesting and fruitful way to conceptualize it is as a type of resistance. One might recall in this context the historian Bruce Nelson’s comment, in Workers on the Waterfront (1988), about the “drunken sailor” stereotype: rather than being nothing but an expression of a “childlike and irresponsible” nature, seamen’s tradition of drinking was “an expression of powerlessness, a reflection of alienation and rebellion, an act of camaraderie among men who lived beyond the pale of bourgeois civility.”[64] Again, we must remember that the cynicism and gloomy outlook of most shelter men was not merely a passive reflection of conditions; it was based on a realistic and rational analysis of objective possibilities. Collective resistance could lead to small victories, but it could not change the basic structure of shelter life, nor could it give men jobs. So there was little to be done except try to hold on to some remnant of hope, adapt to reality while yet struggling to maintain one’s identity, and rebel against dehumanization in imagination and conversation. Alcohol, like gambling, facilitated these things.

Confidence, courage, and conviviality: three anti-institutional manifestations of one’s individuality, and three joys for which alcohol was a uniquely adept midwife. “When I drink I got guts,” said one inmate. “When I’m not tanked up I sit quiet and still, but when I’m drunk I can go up and bum anybody, panhandle, or bum from store to store. I can go to a woman, fight, or do anything.” While entering the shelter as a stranger in a strange land, an inmate soon learned that “a group of jolly companions could be found around a bottle.” Few men drank alone, preferring to share their bottle with friends or anyone nearby. Sometimes several would contribute to a communal fund with which to “enjoy a real spree” together. They could go to the cheap taverns that abounded in the neighborhoods, or to the “moonshine joints” located in the basements of dilapidated old buildings, or they could buy the even cheaper “derail” that was sold illegally—denatured alcohol diluted with water. Sitting together, they jocularly told tall tales about past conquests of women, or complained about the relief administration, or discussed possible solutions to the economic depression.[65]

As the popular perception was wrong that most homeless men were depressed and alcoholic bums, so it was wrong that most beggars were self-contemptuous failures at life. On the contrary, many treated begging as a job, a craft that required skill and a nuanced understanding of humanity. Some who had practiced the art for a long time complained that it had become much more difficult since the Depression increased the number of beggars and reduced the amount that people gave. And yet it seems that people tended to be surprisingly generous, much more so than business elites were comfortable with. In an earlier chapter we encountered a businessman inveighing, in 1931, against the public’s “mistaken ideas of charity,” a sentiment certainly shared by a large proportion of the upper class. Under pressure from downtown business interests, police periodically made sweeps of the Loop to round up and arrest as many beggars as they could—83 on one occasion in 1933 (none of them a long-term Chicago resident), 189 on another. Still, despite the risks, the money to be made generally ensured that panhandling was worthwhile—at least if we’re to judge by the following experience of a man impersonating a beggar in Springfield, Illinois in 1933:[66]

[In less than three hours, the man] made 27 contacts, was given aid totaling $1.27 by 10 [people], was taken into a restaurant 4 times and fed, was offered whiskey 6 times, was told by young women [beggars] not to solicit in their territory…, was invited to meet one of the men next day to be given a shirt, was given 4 lectures on the consequences of being a bum, and received 9 polite refusals.[67]

In New York City, there were reports of professional beggars making $50 a day. Others might make $10 or $15, and still others settled for a dollar or less. On the whole, the relative generosity beggars encountered suggests that the public was rather sympathetic to their plight, and not as utterly contemptuous as one might think from press coverage at the time.[68]

To sum up this discussion of men living in shelters, I would simply suggest, again, that the most fruitful way to think about their situation—like the situation, indeed, of any subaltern group in the modern world—is to focus on the conflict between impersonal, fundamentally class-determined institutions and the “messy humanity,” resistant and resilient, of the people subjected to them. This “dialectic” of the anti-human confronting the human called forth a variety of responses from the subjugated homeless, not all of them pretty or admirable, but none of them uninteresting. The whole project of herding together carpenters, mechanics, shopkeepers, butchers, railroaders, clerks, farm hands, family men and single men, young men and the elderly, and fifty different nationalities can even be called a fascinating social experiment. Unsurprisingly, in such conditions divisions between the men were the norm, not the exception. White Americans, for example, were sometimes so prejudiced against the foreigners in their midst that their anti-Black racism was all but forgotten in comparison. “I don’t talk to the Pollacks [i.e., foreigners],” said one American in 1934. “If there is nine hundred men in here, eight hundred men are Pollacks. I get along with them because I stay away from them.” “These damn foreigners,” complained another. “Why, they are so ignorant and crude. When you are sitting down, they will cough right in your face.” Such hostility, on the other hand, could have a constructive effect: it tended to unify the groups who were its targets, encouraging friendship and intimacy among those with a similar cultural background.[69]

In general, it seems that most shelter men understood who their real “enemies” were: the politicians, the administrators and staffers who lorded it over them, the rich businessmen who they knew ruled the country in their own interests. But, physically separated from these enemies, living in animal proximity to fellow unfortunates whom they neither knew nor liked, they did as workers so often have and directed some of their simmering resentment at “alien” groups in their midst. Thus did the squalor of their surroundings divert and pervert their populist indignation.


One last group of homeless men remains to be discussed here, albeit only briefly because of the paucity of sources: those men who lived not in shelters but in parks or shantytowns or on streets secluded from the hustle of capitalist society. These people were truly, literally, outcast, unable or unwilling to conform to expected norms and so subject to the physically manifested judgments—punishments—of authorities and the police.

Throughout the 1930s, some men and women inhabited Loop alleys, parks from South Chicago to the North Side, and police stations, where they were often permitted to sleep for a night or two. In times of crisis, as in 1938, their numbers increased, while declining in the middle years of the decade. But this decline was also due to a factor not always emphasized in scholarship: police repression. It is widely known that Chicago had several shantytowns in the early Depression in its parks and railroad yards; less widely known is that the reason they passed out of existence is simply that authorities destroyed them. The largest of them, the Hooverville in Grant Park, was gone as early as 1932, burned to the ground by the police. “The inhabitants were summarily told to get out,” a reporter describes, “and thirty minutes later the ‘homes’ were in ashes.”[70]

Until about 1933, one or two hundred men could be found sleeping in the box cars on Navy Pier every night, but the railroad companies grew so tired of this that they wired and fastened the doors of each car shut. The sidewalks, hot air vents, and loading platforms underneath Wacker Drive, likewise, were cleared of homeless men—but not definitively until late 1935, when police were ordered to drive all would-be sleepers away. Around the same time, the police undertook to keep alleys in the Loop clear of sleepers, who were arrested and booked on disorderly conduct charges.

Living in the open air, begging or scavenging or doing odd jobs for food, not having to worry about rent or the other quotidian responsibilities that grind one down year after year, was an existence relatively congenial to many men, even Chicago residents middle-aged or older. They preferred to live outside by their wits rather than be confined to a shelter with its regimentation and lack of privacy. A reporter observed that they considered it more self-respecting to beg in the streets and scavenge food from garbage pails than to be subjected to shelter life.[71]

Admittedly, it is unlikely they were as satisfied as they had been, or would have been, living in “jungles” earlier in the decade, before police had eliminated most of them. The hobo jungle should not be romanticized: it was no paradise. But the appreciative way it was described in an internal Communist Party report of 1933 was not unreasonable:

There is perhaps no place or institution in the entire world where so much real freedom exists as in the Hobo Jungles. Here there is complete freedom from all inhibitions. No language is considered vile or shocking. No dress is considered inappropriate. No one is condemned for his ideas or habits unless they interfere directly with others present. Laziness is not considered a vice and there is more freedom from labor than elsewhere since a little bumming will supply the necessary needs.[72]

Years earlier, an inhabitant of the jungles had written, “here you share and share alike in true fraternal style… Staple foods are always left behind for the common supply.” Absolute democracy reigned, and it functioned well: the camp and everything in it, especially kitchen supplies, were kept clean, and infractions of the rules of etiquette were strictly punished (by expulsion, forced labor, or physical punishment). The jungle, in fact, was a truly anarchist institution, which, as the Communist writer just quoted said, would have flourished and expanded had it not been regularly raided and ultimately destroyed by police.[73]

The homeless who lived outside any institutional context did not experience such a mature and organized anarchism, but at least they were free from the despotic regime of the public shelter. Unfortunately, they remained subject to the regime of the broader society, which harassed them and chased them from the visible and comfortable spots in the city. In this respect, they could identify with their fellow outcasts the shelter men, and more broadly with the multitudes too poor to buy social influence, rich only in that mysterious human quality: resilience.

[1] Edwin H. Sutherland and Harvey J. Locke, Twenty Thousand Homeless Men: A Study of Unemployed Men in the Chicago Shelters (Chicago: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1936), 2. [2] Jesse Walter Dees, Jr., Flophouse (Francestown, New Hampshire: Marshall Jones Company, 1948), 96, 97; Sutherland and Locke, Twenty Thousand Homeless Men, 3, 4, 8. [3] For example, see Charles Hoch and Robert A. Slayton, New Homeless and Old: Community and the Skid Row Hotel (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989); Kenneth Kusmer, Down and Out, On the Road: The Homeless in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); Todd DePastino, Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Joan M. Crouse, The Homeless Transient in the Great Depression (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986). [4] Nels Anderson, The Hobo (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1923/1967), 87, 96. [5] Ibid., 4–8; Kusmer, Down and Out, On the Road, 157. [6] Harvey Warren Zorbaugh, The Gold Coast and the Slum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1929/1976), chapter 6; Paul G. Cressey, The Taxi-Dance Hall: A Sociological Study in Commercialized Recreation and City Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1932); Anderson, The Hobo, 8–10. [7] Zorbaugh, The Gold Coast and the Slum, 115. [8] Ibid., chapter 7. [9] Anderson, The Hobo, 10, 11. [10] Dees, Jr., Flophouse, 40–51; Alvin Roseman, Shelter Care and the Local Homeless Man (Chicago: Public Administration Service, 1935), 4. [11] Clearing House for Men, Men in the Crucible (Chicago: Illinois Emergency Relief Administration, 1932), 1; Robert S. Wilson, Community Planning for Homeless Men and Boys (New York City: Family Welfare Association of America, 1931), 114, 115; Roseman, Shelter Care, 4; Robert W. Beasley, “Homeless Men—Chicago: 1930–31,” Social Service Review, vol. 5, no. 3 (September 1931): 439; First Annual Report of the IERC (Chicago, 1933), 75. [12] First Annual Report of the IERC, 75; Clearing House for Unemployed Homeless Men, “Report for the Month of December, 1931,” Welfare Council Papers, box 444, folder 2; Lenore G. Levin, “Care of Resident Non-Family Men and Women, and Care of Transients and Non-Residents,” in Social Service Year Book, 1934, ed. Linn Brandenburg (Chicago: Council of Social Agencies, 1934), 28; Biennial Report of the IERC, Covering the Period July 1, 1934 through June 30, 1936, 101–105. [13] Men in the Crucible, vi; Roseman, Shelter Care, 9–11, 52; Robert W. Beasley, “Care of Destitute Unattached Men in Chicago with Special Reference to the Depression Period Beginning in 1930” (M.A. thesis, University of Chicago, 1933), 31, 32, 83. [14] “Shelters for Women—Findings and Conclusions,” 1932, Graham Taylor Papers, box 38, folder 1982; Olive Walker Swinney, “Provisions for the Care of Destitute Non-Family Women in Chicago” (M.A. thesis, University of Chicago, 1937). [15] Ibid., 58, 83–94; “Shelters for Women—Findings and Conclusions”; Robert Beasley and Mary Gillette Moon, “Care of Non-Family Men and Women,” Social Service Year Book, 1932, 30; Helen Cody Baker, “A Home for Mary Lou,” Survey, March 15, 1932, 669, 670; Service Bureau for Women, “Service Report for the Month of June, 1933,” Welfare Council Papers, box 444, folder 3. [16] Margaret D. Yates, “Family Service and Relief,” in Social Service Year Book, 1935, eds. Linn Brandenburg et al., 9–11; Florence Nesbitt, “Family Service and Relief,” in Social Service Year Book, 1936, 5; Biennial Report of the IERC, July 1, 1934 to June 30, 1936, 103–106. [17] Dees, Jr., Flophouse, 143–149. [18] Chicago Tribune, January 8, 9, 11, 12, and February 10, 1938. [19] Specifically, in their classic Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare (New York: Vintage Books, 1971), xv. [20] See, e.g., Georg Rusche and Otto Kirscheimer, Punishment and Social Structure (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939). [21] Chicago Tribune, June 15, 1935. [22] Roseman, Shelter Care, 14, 15, 26, 34; Charles Hoch and Robert A. Slayton, New Homeless and Old, 47; Dees, Jr., Flophouse, 137, 138. [23] Sutherland and Locke, Twenty Thousand Homeless Men, 2. [24] While there was a separate shelter for Black men, every shelter had some whites and some Blacks. [25] “The Drifting Unemployed: A Study of the Younger Unemployed at the Newberry Shelter,” 1932, pp. 15, 16, Welfare Council Papers, box 233, folder 5. [26] Sutherland and Locke, Twenty Thousand Homeless Men, 5–8; Roseman, Shelter Care, 10; Dees, Jr., Flophouse, 97, 103, 104. These documents and page numbers are the sources for the following paragraph as well. [27] Beasley, “Care of Destitute Unattached Men in Chicago,” 34, 35; Sutherland and Locke, Twenty Thousand Homeless Men, 8, 9. [28] Roseman, Shelter Care, 30–32; Second Annual Report of the IERC, 145; Dees, Jr., Flophouse, 56–59; Men in the Crucible, 15–17. [29] Beasley, “Care of Destitute Unattached Men,” 37, 54, 55; Roseman, 18, 19; Men in the Crucible, 34. [30] Roseman, Shelter Care, 18. [31] Roseman, 15–17; France Bunce, “I’ve Got to Take a Chance,” Forum and Century, February 1933, 108–112. [32] Roseman, 15–17; Men in the Crucible, 36, 37; Chicago Hunger Fighter, December 26, 1931, February 27, 1932; Dees, Jr., Flophouse, 105–108; Chicago Daily News, October 20, 28, 1932; Sutherland and Locke, Twenty Thousand Homeless Men,3–5. [33] Roseman, 7, 8; Dees, Jr., Flophouse, 121–125, 134; Sutherland and Locke, 7, 14; Glenn H. Johnson, Relief and Health Problems of a Selected Group of Non-Family Men (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1937), 33. [34] Sutherland and Locke, Twenty Thousand Homeless Men, 14, 15, 144–158; Dees, Jr., 124; “The Drifting Unemployed,” 46; Samuel Kirson Weinberg, “A Study of Isolation among Chicago Shelter-House Men” (M.A. thesis, University of Chicago, 1935), chapter 4. [35] Beasley, “Care of Destitute Unattached Men,” 38–44; Roseman, Shelter Care, 20; Dees, Jr., Flophouse, 82–85; Worker’s Voice, October 15, 1932; Sutherland and Locke, 101. [36] Men in the Crucible, 62; S. Kirson Weinberg, “The Problem of Unattachment of Shelter House Men,” 1934, term paper for Sociology 310, Ernest Burgess Papers, box 184, folder 1, pp. 1, 84. [37] “West Madison Street,” 1934, Burgess Papers, box 135, folder 2. [38] Kusmer, Down and Out, 160, 161; “West Madison Street”; interview with J. P. Smith, November 13, 1934, Burgess papers, box 135, folder 2; Harvey J. Locke, “Unemployed Men in Chicago Shelters,” Sociology and Social Research, vol. 19 (May–June 1935): 420–428; Dees, Jr., Flophouse, 140. [39] Anderson, The Hobo, chapter 11; interview of Carl Kolins by John Oien, 1934, Burgess Papers, box 135, folder 2; Weinberg, “A Study of Isolation among Chicago Shelter-House Men,” 43; Sutherland and Locke, Twenty Thousand Homeless Men, 67. [40] Sutherland and Locke, 67, 68. [41] Anderson, The Hobo, chapters 13 and 14; Todd DePastino, Citizen Hobo, chapter 4, 175–177; Nels Anderson, Men on the Move (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1940), chapter 1. [42] Interview of Carl Kolins. [43] Weinberg, “The Problem of Unattachment of Shelter House Men.” [44] Sutherland and Locke, Twenty Thousand Homeless Men, 70–86. [45] Ibid., 78, 91. [46] To quote the December 26, 1931 issue of the Hunger Fighter: “Anyone who knows anything about Chicago business knows that everything connected with it is bound to be a racket of some kind. And so when workers begin to starve and freeze the business of giving them relief becomes another racket. The more underhanded a racket works, the better it is. Now, take Governor Emmerson’s Joint Emergency Relief Committee, for instance. First, it collects about nine million dollars from those workers who still have a cent or two left. Then it dishes out big gobs of this swag to all kinds of ‘charity institutions’ for them to hand out as they see fit…” In some respects, shelter men’s cynicism was the cynicism of Communists. [47] Interview of Carl Kolins. [48] Sutherland and Locke, 152, 159–162. [49] “The Drifting Unemployed: A Study of the Younger Unemployed at the Newberry Shelter.” [50] Hunger Fighter, December 26, 1931, January 9, February 27, and March 12, 1932. [51] Randi Storch, Red Chicago: American Communism at Its Grassroots, 1928–35 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 109. [52] David Scheyer, “Flop-House,” Nation, August 22, 1934. [53] Chicago Hunger Fighter, January 9, 1932. [54] Beasley, “Care of Destitute Unattached Men,” 72; Storch, Red Chicago, 109, 110. [55] Quotation from Sutherland and Locke, Twenty Thousand Homeless Men, 13. [56] Men in the Crucible, 19–24; Roseman, Shelter Care, 28; The Billboard, May 7, 1932; Chicago Tribune, April 26, 1932; New York Times, April 25, 1932; Dees, Jr., Flophouse, 63, 64. [57] Men in the Crucible, 21. [58] Sutherland and Locke, Twenty Thousand Homeless Men, 104–107; Dees, Jr., Flophouse, 62, 63; Roseman, Shelter Care, 29; Anderson, The Hobo, 185. [59] Sutherland and Locke, 94, 95. [60] Ibid., 122, 124, 125. In interpreting the significance of gambling for these men, one recalls Noam Chomsky’s remarks on spectator sports in contemporary society: a major reason for the incredible popularity of professional sports, and the enormous amount of attention and analysis that people regularly devote to them, is that most other avenues for the exercise of collective intelligence are closed to the public. To quote Chomsky, “in our society, we have things that you might use your intelligence on, like politics, but people really can’t get involved in them in a very serious way—so what they do is they put their minds into other things, such as sports. You’re trained to be obedient; you don’t have an interesting job; there’s no work around for you that’s creative; in the cultural environment you’re a passive observer of usually pretty tawdry stuff; political and social life are out of your range, they’re in the hands of the rich folk. So what’s left? Well, one thing that’s left is sports—so you put a lot of the intelligence and the thought and the self-confidence into that.” Such was the function that gambling served among many thousands of Chicago residents in the 1930s. Peter Mitchell and John Schoeffel, eds., Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky (New York: The New Press, 2002), 99. [61] Sutherland and Locke, Twenty Thousand Homeless Men, 126–128. [62] Ibid., 128–132. [63] Ibid. [64] Bruce Nelson, Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930s (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 24. [65] Roseman, Shelter Care, 33; Sutherland and Locke, 113–122; David Scheyer, “Flop-House”; Dees, Jr., Flophouse, 117–120. [66] Chicago Tribune, February 22, 1931, April 6, 1933; James Finan, “Don’t Give to Beggars,” Forum and Century, June 1938; Sutherland and Locke, Twenty Thousand Homeless Men, 141, 142. [67] Quoted in Kusmer, Down and Out, On the Road, 200. [68] Finan, “Don’t Give to Beggars”; Sutherland and Locke, Twenty Thousand Homeless Men,134, 135, 139. [69] Weinberg, “The Problem of Unattachment of Shelter House Men,” 82–84, Burgess Papers, box 184, folder 1. [70] Charles R. Walker, “Relief and Revolution,” Forum and Century, August 1932; Max Stern, “A Study of Some Aspects of Problems Arising in Connection with the Transfer of Local Homeless Residents from the Service Bureau for Men to Home Relief at the Family District Offices,” 9, 10, November 9, 1935, Welfare Council Papers, box 233, folder 6. [71] Max Stern, “The Transfer of Single Unemployed Men to Home Relief in Chicago,” Social Service Review, vol. 10, no. 2 (June 1936): 277–287. [72] “Problem of the Single Unemployed,” n.d., Communist Party files, Tamiment Library, microfilm reel 258, #96. [73] Kusmer, Down and Out, 136; Anderson, The Hobo, 19, 21. Anarchy, of course, means simply freedom and democracy. See Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2010) and Daniel Guérin, ed., No Gods, No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchism (San Francisco: AK Press, 1998).

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