Nomads of the Depression

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Millions of Americans lost their homes in the aftermath of the 1929 stock-market crash. The struggles of this army of the displaced created unique social challenges for a financially fraught government and revealed the impact of the deepening economic crisis on the U.S. worker and his family.

"Every group in society is represented in their ranks, from the college graduate to the child who has never seen the inside of a schoolhouse," Newton Baker, the chairman of the Welfare and Relief Organization, wrote in 1932. "We think of the nomads of the desert -- now we have the nomads of the Depression."

As government resources for the unemployed were stretched past their limits, the homeless sought shelter wherever they could. One such space was an abandoned, nine-story meatpacking plant near Manhattan’s west-side docks. There, in 1932, more than 100 unemployed men -- immigrants and native-born, black and white -- established what the New York Times called a “penthouse jungle.”

The inhabitants had converted the upper floors into living quarters and furnished the rooms with carpets, chairs, beds, couches and stoves they had salvaged from city dumps and vacant lots. The shelter provided more safety and comfort than the growing squatter colonies in other parts of the city.

"We lived like lords," a sailor told the Times. "We had stoves and blankets and all. . . . The rain never got in." But the police did, expelling the residents in mid-December. They joined the nation's displaced masses.

Between January and November 1932, New York’s City Municipal Lodging House alone provided free shelter to the homeless 1.1 million times. Washington’s district commissioners appealed to the Army to loan cots, mattresses and winter blankets to stranded men. Throughout the country, men in search of work clambered into freight cars headed east or west.

The Travelers Aid Society, which had once been a mainstay for immigrants, turned its attention to providing food, shelter and job placements for homeless women in New York. Bus-station officials regularly called on the society "to come and take care of a girl without a cent in her purse or a friend in the city," the New York Times reported.

"From all directions come the buses bringing hundreds of unemployed," Percy Straus, a member of the society's board of directors, said. "The girls appear to start out with little thought of where they are going; they hope to get work. . . . Most of the girls have pluck. Rather than stay at home and add to the family burden, they take a chance."

Wandering boys presented an equally pressing challenge. The Emergency Unemployment Relief Committee estimated that 200,000 boys under the age of 21 were roving the country. New York City’s 50,000 homeless included an estimated 5,000 boys.

The young migrants’ underlying philosophy, Baker said, was simple: "We know what to expect if we stay at home, but who knows what our luck may be, further on?"

With businesses flattened by the Great Depression, Baker called for government-sponsored workshops to provide training and job opportunities.

"The question which every American community faces today and which demands an immediate answer is, can we afford to permit permanent injury to the character of this generation of youth?" he asked.

Good question, then as now.

(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the history of industry and technology at Rutgers University, Camden, and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.

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