Hoovervilles of the Great Depression
Hooverville: A crudely
built camp put up usually on the edge of a town to house the many
poverty stricken people who had lost their homes during the
Depression of the 1930s.
Many of the shantytowns that sprung up all
over the nation during the
Depression were facetiously called Hoovervilles because so many
people at the time blamed President Herbert Hoover for letting the
nation slide into the
Great Depression. Coined by Charles Michelson, the Publicity Chief
of the Democratic National Committee, it was first used in print media
in 1930 when The New York Times published an article about a
shantytown in Chicago, Illinois. The term caught on quickly and was
soon used throughout the country.
Though homelessness has been a problem
throughout the ages and was a common sight in the 1920’s, as hobos and
tramps lounged in city streets and rode the rails, it has never been
more present in the United States as it was during the Great
Squatter's shacks in "Hooverville," Portland,
Oregon, Arthur Rothstein, 1936.
Hooverville was the
popular name for shanty towns built by homeless
people during the Depression. They took their name for President
Herbert Hoover, who the American
people blamed for the Depression.
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causes of the
were many and varied, beginning with rapid economic growth and
financial excess of the "Roaring Twenties.” During this time, many
Americans were quickly buying automobiles, appliances, and speculating
in the stock market. Unfortunately, much of this wild spending was
done on credit and while businesses were making huge gains, the
average workers’ wages were not increasing at anywhere near the same
But, like other
"booms” throughout history, the cycle soon led to a "bust.” As
manufacturing output continued and farmers were over producing,
circumstances began to change, leading to falling prices and rising
debt. At the same time, there was a major banking crisis, serious
policy mistakes of the Federal Reserve Board, and with the stock
market crash in October, 1929 the
country was thrown into a full-blown
Depression that would affect the nation for nearly a decade.
Businesses began to lay off people, which
was quickly followed by homelessness as the economy crumbled in the
early 1930’s. Homeowners lost their property when they could not pay
mortgages or pay taxes. Renters fell behind and faced eviction. Many
squeezed in with relatives, but hundreds of thousands were not so
fortunate. Some defied eviction, staying where they were, others found
refuge in one of the increasing number of vacant buildings, more found
shelter under bridges, in culverts, empty water mains, or on vacant
public lands, where they built crude shacks. When the
Dust Bowl began in 1931
it made matters even worse. By 1932 millions of Americans were living
outside the “normal” housing market. Between 1929 and 1933, more than
100,000 businesses failed across the nation and when President Hoover
left office in 1933, the national unemployment rate was nearly 25%.
As these many people used whatever means
they had at their disposal for survival, they blamed Hoover for the
downfall of economic stability and lack of government help. Making
matters worse, the minimal federal help that was provided often didn’t
go to the sick, hungry and homeless, as many state and local
politicians of the time, were corrupt.
These teeming communities of makeshift
shacks known as “Hoovervilles,” were often concentrated in cities
close to soup kitchens run by charities. The shelters themselves
varied widely, from stone houses and fairly solid structures built by
those with construction skills, but, far more that were thrown
together with wood crates, cardboard, tar paper, scraps of cloth and
metal, and various other discarded materials. Within their shelters,
most people had a small stove, a few cooking implements, some bedding,
and little else.
More derogatory terms blaming Hoover were also
coined including a “Hoover blanket,” which was old newspaper used for
blanketing; “Hoover leather” was cardboard used to line a shoe when the
sole had worn through; a "Hoover wagon" was an automobile with horses tied
to it because the owner could not afford fuel; freight cars used for
shelter were called “Hoover Pullmans,” and a “Hoover flag” was an empty
pocket turned inside out.
These settlements were often established on
empty land and were rarely “recognized” by authorities as they were
tolerated or ignored out of necessity. However, that was not always the
case, especially if the occupants were trespassing on private lands and
some cities would not allow them at all.
Horse drawn automobiles were often referred to as "Hoover
Wagons" during the
n May, 1933, President Roosevelt’s “New Deal”
enacted a special relief program called the Federal Transient Service (FTS).
Shelters were established by the program that provided food, clothing,
medical care, and training and education programs. The relief also
provided for rooms in boarding houses and rent payments. A few camps were
established in rural areas but, in the cities, the Federal Government saw
the problem as a local one.
The program helped many, it was unable to
thousands of others and just two years later, in 1935, it was phased out.
The plan was then to get the homeless into work-related programs, such as
the Works Progress Administration (WPA). However, only about 20% of those
formerly housed by the FTS were able to get jobs in the work programs.
Though some were eligible for the Resettlement Administration camps
established for migratory workers, it was still not enough.
One such Hooverville “town” was
located in New York City’s Central Park. When the stock market crashed in
1929, it occurred just as a rectangular reservoir north of Belvedere
Castle was being taken out of service. By 1930, a few homeless people set
up an informal camp at the drained reservoir but were soon evicted. But,
having nowhere to go, they would come back and as public sentiment became
more sympathetic, they were allowed to stay. Called “Hoover Valley,” the
reservoir soon sported a number of shacks on what was labeled "Depression
Street." One was even built of brick with a roof of inlaid tile
constructed by unemployed bricklayers. Others built dwelling from stone
blocks of the reservoir, including one shanty that was 20 feet tall.
Though the settlement could not have been popular with the tenants of the
new Fifth Avenue and Central Park West apartments, but they mounted no
There were other such settlements in New York
– one called “Hardlucksville” which boasted some 80 shacks between Ninth
and 10th Streets on the East River. Another called “Camp Thomas Paine,”
existed along the Hudson in Riverside Park. The Central Park disappeared
sometime before April, 1933 when work on the reservoir landfill resumed.
Washington stood one of the
largest, longest-lasting, and best documented
Hoovervilles in the country,
standing for ten years, between 1931 to 1941. Though there were several
located about the city, this Hooverville was located on the tidal flats
adjacent to the Port of Seattle. The camp began when an unemployed
lumberjack Spread over nine acres, it housed a population of up to 1,200.
The camp began when an unemployed lumberjack named Jesse Jackson and 20
other men started building shacks on the land. Within just a few days 50
shanties were made available to the homeless. However, the Health
Department soon posted notices on every shack to vacate them within a
week. When the residents refused, the shacks were burned down. But, they
were immediately rebuilt, burned again, and rebuilt again, this time
underground, with roof made of tin or steel. With Jesse Jackson acting as
a liaison between Hooverville residents and City Hall, the Health
Department finally relented and allowed them to stay on the condition that
they adhere to safety and sanitary rules. Jackson became the de facto
mayor of the shantytown, which also included its own form of community
government. The “town” existed until the land was needed for shipping
facilities prior to World War II.
Hooverville sprung up at
the foot of Randolph Street near Grant Park, which also claimed its own
form of government, with a man named Mike Donovan, a disabled former
railroad brakeman and miner, as its “Mayor.” In an interview with a
reporter, Donovan would say “Building construction may be at a standstill
elsewhere, but down here everything is booming. Ours is a sort of
communistic government. We pool our interests and when the commissary
shows signs of depletion, we appoint a committee to see what leavings the
Another large Hooverville was situated along
the banks of the
Mississippi River in
St. Louis, Missouri. Supporting some
500 people, it consisted of four distinct racial sectors, though the
people integrated to “support” their city. They too had an unofficial
mayor by the name of Gus Smith, who was also a pastor. The community,
which depended primarily on private donations and scavenging, created its
own churches and other social institutions. It remained a viable community
until 1936, when the federal Works Progress Administration allocated slum
clearance funds for the area.
These are but a few examples, as Hoovervilles
existed all over the United States -- at the edges of Portland, Oregon,
Washington D.C., Los Angeles, California, and everywhere in between.
the latter half of the 1930’s, the number of homeless increased as
factories closed and farmers were displaced. The problem was made worse as
more and more states increased residency requirements for the homeless to
apply for relief, requiring them to have lived there a certain amount of
time, and other conditions. For the many transients, this made them ineligible.
The private shelters were overwhelmed, as well
as city officials trying to “police” the many vagrants, which led to
increased hostility towards the homeless. Some communities, especially in
the South and West, used extralegal means, such as border patrols,
indigent laws, forced removals, and unwarranted arrests, to keep the
was the "hardest hit" by transients during the Depression years. Having
only 4.7% of the population when it began, they would wind up with 14% of
the nation's transients. Overwhelmed officials tried to figure out how to
absorb as many as 6,000 migrants crossing its borders daily. Also feeling
the effects of the Depression, California infrastructures were already overburdened, and
the steady stream of newly arriving migrants was more than the system
answer was the “Bum
Blockade.” In February, 1936,
Los Angeles Police Chief James E. “Two-Gun” Davis,
with the support of the
Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, many public
officials, the railroads, and hard-pressed state relief agencies,
dispatched 136 police officers to 16 major points of entry on the
Arizona, Nevada and Oregon
borders, with orders to turn back migrants with "no visible
means of support." This continued for several months until it
was finally withdrawn when the use of city funds for this project was
questioned and a number of lawsuits were threatened.
John Steinbeck's book, the Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939,
it raised public sympathy for the homeless. However, his book focused on
the drought refugees moving westward, rather than the majority of the
homeless population, which lived in cities. In the end, though, it would
encourage assistance. Just a month after the movie version was released in
1940, a Congressional House committee began hearings on interstate
migration of the destitute. But, it would be World War II that would end
the "problem." As the nation turned its focus to defense, many of the
homeless joined the military or found employment in war industries.
Shelters closed and relief programs were reduced. In the meantime, the
American Civil Liberties Union, which had been fighting states' rights to
restrict interstate migration, took their case all the way to the U.S.
Supreme Court, which issued a ruling in 1941, agreeing that states could
not restrict access by poor people or any other Americans. But, it would
be almost three more decades, in 1969, before the Supreme Court declared
unconstitutional the residency requirements for benefit eligibility.
Getting rid of these many Hoovervilles was a
difficult task as their residents had no other place to call home. Though
numerous attempts were made to eliminate these villages during the 1930’s,
they were unsuccessful. The New Deal programs helped to eliminate many of
the shantytowns, but, some cities were not enthusiastic about federal
initiatives, arguing that public housing would depress
property values and make their cities susceptible to Communist influence.
Finally, in 1941, a shack elimination program
was put into effect, and the many Hoovervilles
across the country were systematically eliminated.
By this time, employment levels had begun to rise, which gradually
provided some shelter and security for formerly homeless Americans.
Homelessness would not recapture the national
attention until the late 1970s, when it was thrust to the forefront as a
result of deindustrialization and urban renewal.
Today, the term “Hooverville” is still used to
portray modern tent cities. However, the terms “Bushville” and
“Obamaville” became more common when describing the encampments of
the homeless and unemployed that appeared in the wake of mortgage
foreclosures and the financial crisis of 2007–2010. Ironically, the
current era of financial strife, preceded by decades of excess, includes
many of those very same factors as the
Great Depression, such as a major
policy mistakes of the Federal Reserve Board, and excessive debt.
of America, updated August, 2016.
A Hooverville in Sacramento, California.
The Bum Blockade – Stopping the Invasion of
The Great Depression
Dust Bowl Days or the "Dirty Thirties"
Depression & Dustbowl Photo Print Gallery