Hoovervilles for Kids
Herbert Hoover was the president when the Great Depression began in 1929. Hoover believed that towns, businesses, churches, and volunteers - good people - should take care of the problem of the growing number of homeless in their community. As far as he was concerned, this was not a problem for the federal government. He wanted people to be self-reliant and not count on the government to help them out. As the Great Depression worsened, many millions of people lost their jobs. When they could not pay their bills, many millions of people lost their homes.
Desperate for shelter, with little or no help from government, millions of homeless began building shantytowns. These were communities of shacks, built with whatever materials they could find, without streets or order. They were built on public and unused land. There was no sanitation, no electricity, no garbage collection. Whenever possible, Hoovervilles were built near creeks, streams, and rivers to provide a source of water. These communities of shacks or shanties were called Hoovervilles, after President Hoover, who refused to help the growing number of homeless. Thousands of Hoovervilles began to appear all over the country.
Each Hooverville was unique. Some Hoovervilles were very small, with 5 or 10 shanties gathered together. But some had a thousand shanties in one Hooverville, of all shapes and sizes and quality. Some unemployed masons and construction workers build shanties for their families that were pretty nice. They used cast off stones and broken bricks and other materials they found in junk piles. They made stoves out of abandoned auto parts. Some of the shanties they built had several rooms. Some had a few pieces of furniture. Some had vegetable gardens. But most were not nearly so nice. Many were made of cardboard. They did not last long and had to be constantly rebuilt. Some shanties were holes dug in the ground and covered with pieces of metal for roofs. When it rained, these "homes" filled with mud. Some were made of scraps of this and that, put together as best they could. The only thing individual shanties and Hoovervilles had in common was that the people who lived in them were out of work, out of money, and had no where else to go.
Life in most Hoovervilles was grim. Men tried to find day work, or even work for a few hours. Women tried to keep things as clean as possible, repaired clothes and made food stretch. Kids did not go to school, but hunted through junk piles and garbage in the nearby towns, looking for things to bring back to their shanty. Some Hoovervilles were loosely organized. They selected a spokesperson, one of the homeless who lived in the Hooverville, to work with city officials. Others selected a mayor to be in charge of problems that might arise within a Hooverville between residents. Some had homeless teachers who taught kids who wanted to learn. Some Hoovervilles created junk piles that people could freely use. Junk was added and taken away as people put things to work. Some of the junk was made into art. Kids played games they made up. People tried to keep their spirits up with songs and music. But the camps were full of disease, and dirt, and depression.
No one wanted a Hooverville near or in their city or town. Some cities and towns sent in police to chase the homeless away and to burn down shanties. But most people understood that the homeless had no place to go. Towns laid down rules that the homeless had to follow if they wanted to stay. Some townspeople organized food deliveries and blankets to help the homeless. Some donated clothes and toys. Each town's reaction was different.
The picture at the top of this page is a picture of a Hooverville in King County, WA. You can learn more about daily life in a Hooverville with the links below. The first one is a primary source - five pages from the journal of the "mayor" of Hooverville in Seattle, Washington. Although many Hoovervilles had residents with families and children, this particular Hooverville, per a rule laid down by the city officials of Seattle, was limited to men only.
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