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Hooverville, USA

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Do you think the diners here really remember the Depression?
In the cold streets of Minneapolis, when you look at a picture of a tropical sunset, you can almost smell the warm salty air of the beach and feel the wet sand beneath your feet. Last night, Nick and I saw Vanna White stand in front of just such a picture and announce with outstretched arms, "This is Paradise!"

As she did so, the dark-skinned man sitting across from Nick in the Simpson House Temporary Shelter for the Homeless coughed a little and rolled his eyes at the TV. Watching 'The Wheel of Fortune' in a homeless shelter puts the whole idea of 'fortune' in perspective and makes you realize that irony strikes deep sometimes.

Drop it all and get out of the cold!
Having walked through some of the streets of Minneapolis, Nick and I can vouch for just how cold it can be out there and agree that life in the streets in the midst of a Minnesota winter is NOT fun. Tonight there are about 700 people scattered throughout the streets of Minneapolis looking for a place to sleep. They will find a place in storefront doorways, underneath bridges, in makeshift tent colonies, and the shallow caves lining the banks of the frozen Mississippi.

Nick and I have been without a place to sleep on the trek before, but with all of our supplies we can make our little Honda pretty darn comfortable. We also have only had to resort to sleeping in the car on a few occasions, unlike those who have to do it every night.

Though people find themselves without homes for a lot of reasons, the residents at the Simpson House are not homeless because they do not have jobs. Seventy-five of the residents there have paying full-time jobs and work at places like Target and the Mall of America. An obvious question is "If they've got good jobs, then why are they homeless?" Well, like Nick and I have experienced, sometimes you can't pay the big bucks required to find a place to call home.

Snowbanks and murals line the streets of Minneapolis
In Minneapolis and many other cities throughout the US, there are plenty of jobs to be had. The problem is that high-paying jobs in the internet business have convinced many landlords that they can shoot up the prices of their properties to take advantage of the new wealth and, in turn, force a lot of people out who can't afford the raised prices with their minimum wage-paying jobs. Most of the residents at the Simpson House, who don't have jobs in the big money businesses, are feeling the effects of this change and cannot afford to keep up.

A lot of our grandparents would probably think it's crazy that there are people without homes in Minneapolis when there are so many jobs, when back in the 1930s people were homeless because there were way too few. In the early part of the 1930s, Herbert Hoover was President, and the US, like many parts of the world, was in the midst of the Great Depression. Check out Daphne's dispatch on how the Great Depression was started!

Beds at the Simpson House are luxury compared to the snowy Minneapolis streets
People were losing their jobs all over the place. For example, the Hoover-supported Hawley-Smoot Tariff, which placed high taxes on international goods, was supposed to generate revenue, but instead prevented many US industries from being able to sell their goods on the international market. As a result, these companies had to lay off huge numbers of employees to stay in business and, as a consequence, added to the economic and social crises caused by bank closings and agricultural failures.

During the depression, unemployment affected an astronomical 25% of the US population. That's one out of every four people, folks, and that percentage jumped all the way up to 50 and sometimes 80% in many Midwestern and industrial cities. You can pretty much assume that with such high unemployment, people had a hard time keeping up with their bills and paying rent. Because of empty bank accounts and the lack of jobs, nearly 2 MILLION men and women with families lost their homes and started to roam the streets, scrounging for food and looking for shelter.

As a result, people moved just outside the cities to avoid the high costs and began to construct homemade houses out of whatever they could find, like cardboard boxes, wood, scrap metal, and used rubber. Some people even got REAL creative, built shacks on the rivers, and tied them to the shore so they would not have to pay property taxes. Eventually, with almost 100,000 people losing their jobs per week, these emergency makeshift houses multiplied into cardboard jungles, and shantytowns sprung up just outside of city centers all over the country. Chicago, Minneapolis, Sacramento, Pittsburgh, and Seattle are just a few.

Stephen treks through the government funded apartments of Minneapolis to show how far the city has come from Hooverville
In Seattle, the residents started to connect their cardboard city with President and former architect Herbert Hoover, calling their shanty Hooverville. The name stuck and began to spread to other such shantytowns across the country. As people began to blame the length of the depression on Hoover's failed policies and lack of governmental support, they made up slang that linked his name to daily life in the depression. The shantytowns, of course, became known as 'Hoovervilles', and the newspapers the homeless would use to keep themselves warm were called 'Hoover blankets'. Broken down cars pulled by horses were 'Hoover wagons' and jackrabbits, 'Hoover hogs'.

The residents of these Hoovervilles were the hardest hit during the depression. They were black, white, and immigrant and they lived together beyond racial and ethnic barriers as scavengers, spending their days on the lookout for hard to find odd jobs, scraps of food, and anything to make their homes more solid. Houses or shops where people could find a meal were often marked with an arrow.


Trekker turns into a puddle of goo! / The other day, a woman offered to let me test out her new Aqua Massage machine...

Many of the young men during the depression were extremely transient, ready to leave Hooverville at the first mention of work in another city. They would leave their families and live on trains, travelling from city to city, farm to farm, relying on word of mouth to survive. Hoboes, they were called. Families would often find hoboes waiting at the backs of their houses offering to work for food. To many, these men were not considered bums but honest people who had been hit hard by the depression.

Home, Sweet Home in Hooverville, USA
In general, communities were sympathetic to hoboes and other residents of the Hoovervilles, but charities, soup kitchens, and shelters were hard pressed to support the massive quantities of struggling people. Others who were not as hard hit by the depression did not like the image that Hoovervilles portrayed. Officials in Seattle actually tried to burn their Hooverville on two occasions to rid the city of their poor vagrants. After the second attempt to destroy the Hooverville, the residents rebuilt it, using concrete blocks and tin roofs, keeping fire proofing in mind.

Whatever backlash there was against the Hoovervilles did not compare with the rage the American public had for President Hoover. They blamed him for the depression. They were tired of his refusing to support governmental relief efforts while he talked about the need for confidence in the government and the economic system. Poverty, hunger, and the life of Hoovervilles continued for years. There was no welfare and no federal support for housing. Hoovervilles continued to exist up to the introduction of FDR's New Deal (check out Nick's dispatch on the impact of the New Deal) and the beginning of World War II. It was the boom in shipbuilding and other mechanical industries during the first years of the war that re-employed workers and brought a stop to Hoovervilles.

Today, almost seventy years later, there is still an unacceptable amount of people who live in the streets. Admittedly, however, there are a lot fewer now than during the depression. Not only are there significantly fewer homeless, but there is significantly more community support, both governmental and private, mostly due to the lesson we learned during the Great Depression.

Can you imagine finding your way home in this, the original Hooverville?
Nick and I spent an entire day visiting different shelters in the Minneapolis area to try to volunteer but not one of them were in need of help. "Oh, wow, sir," said one shelter worker, "we're all booked up for about six months. If you want to help out, you've got to plan AHEAD...at least a month in advance." What? Booked up for six months?!! Plan ahead....to volunteer? It is pretty astounding that there is such a wide base of support for the Minneapolis street cosmmunity.

The Simpson House, in particular, has four different programs set up for its residents, one of which offers families with children rental subsidies in order to find permanent shelter and make their way back into a self-sufficient lifestyle. Government funding supports about 40% of the maintenance of the Simpson House and plays a large part in the development of low-income apartment complexes in the surrounding area.

Perhaps President Hoover probably would not have agreed with such monetary relief for the poor, but this is Minneapolis, my friends. We're not in Hooverville anymore.


Please email me at: stephen@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Burn that book! It's on the best-seller list
Irene - Doomed to poverty: Mexican Americans and the Depression
Making A Difference - A little fresh paint can go a long way
Team - So you served your country? So what?
Daphne - The nation goes belly up on Black Tuesday