Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

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

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

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

Article excerpt

"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 not only damning; it is, in places, rather horrifying. 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," through which "it was necessary to wade" in order to use the facilities. 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 twenty-five 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 one reporter to be made of paper, which left the tenants shivering all night from drafts-drafts that did nothing to ameliorate the stench of perspiring bodies and disinfectants. Bedbugs and lice, fond of this environment, bit and crept all over their prone prey.2

There is some 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 dehumanization. Charles Hoch and Robert Slayton's excellent New Homeless and Old: Community and the Skid Row Hotel (1989), for example, places Chicago's Depression-era public shelters in a broad historical context and describes in some depth what "shelter men" had to endure, but says little to suggest that they were not totally undone by their miseries. Its approach, on the whole, is to describe what was done to them, not what they did. Nor does it say much about the evolution of relief policy in Chicago during the 1930s, focusing instead on the broader theme of the decline of the private sector in low-income housing and rise of the public sector. Kenneth Kusmer's Down and Out, On the Road (2001), on the other hand, is a sweeping social history of homelessness in America that concentrates not on the evolution of low-income housing but rather on all facets of homeless life and society's treatment of the homeless. As a comprehensive account, it highlights not only the suffering of the poor but also their activeness, even their "rebellious discontent." Its analysis of shelter life in the Depression, however, is rather brief and, if anything, overly positive. Being a national study, it cannot delve deeply into matters on a local scale. The same is true of Todd DePastino's Citizen Hobo (2003), which in any case is primarily a cultural history, focusing especially on how the (changing) racialized and gendered meanings of homelessness shaped popular understandings of social citizenship. The actual lives and struggles of shelter men are of peripheral significance to this work.3

Joan M. Crouse's The Homeless Transient in the Great Depression: New York State, 1929-1941 (1986) is a more microscopic study, analyzing the relief policies, shelter conditions, and experiences of homeless non-residents in New York. …

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