Shantytowns/Hoovervilles Were Homeless Encampments

During the 1930s there were large concentrations of families living in Shanytowns.


A pregnant woman has just given birth, but she knows the baby is dead it stopped kicking days ago.

Malnourished kids play with their ribs showing though their shirts. Fathers/husbands are out looking for a job, any job. The women are cleaning the clothes in the river – the same water they drink and the same place they go to the bathroom. These were not the living conditions in concentration camps in Germany or the gulags in Siberia, but in shantytowns (Hoovervilles), even here in sunny Southern California.

After the roaring 20s, the Great Depression hit, leaving many jobless and homeless. Families couldn’t pay rent and were kicked out of their homes with nowhere to go.  Many were penniless after selling their life belongings.

After exiting their homes with only the clothes on their back and sadness, uprooted families came together. They formed little communities, everywhere and anywhere. They were located next to drainage ditches, alongside buildings, by a lake, in a park: they are called shantytowns (Hoovervilles).

What is the difference between Hoovervilles of the 30s and 40s and today’s tent cities (Gavin Ghettos)?

Those shantytowns were named after President Herbert Hoover, who was widely blamed for the depression.  The term Hooversvilles was coined by newspaper reporter Charles Michelson.

Then there were other terms, such as “Hoover blanket” (old newspaper used as blanketing). A “Hoover flag” was an empty pocket turned inside out and “Hoover leather” was cardboard used to line a shoe when the sole wore through. A “Hoover wagon” was an automobile with horses hitched to it, often with the engine removed.

Hoovervilles where not isolated to one area of the country, they popped up from Seattle to LA to New York to St. Louis. All were different, some had mayors, some had houses 20 feet tall, some were by lakes, some houses were made out of brick, and some were in drainage ditches.

Seattle had one of the biggest and longest lasting shantytowns. It lasted for 10 years and is one of the best documented cases. The population at one point was 1,200 and the impromptu town spanned more than nine acres. It had an unofficial mayor. The population consisted of all races but was a majority male. The city made very few requests from the tenets, one was that there be no women and children. The second was that there were some building and sanitation codes, like having designated spots for bathrooms.

Today’s Gavin Ghettos are also outside of San Francisco, but the majority of the makeshift dwellings are here in Southern California. They are all different, some are packs of RVs, some are lines of tents, some are located under freeways, some are next to the nearest outlet so “tenants” can charge their iphones.

One of the biggest differences between today’s occupants and those in the 1930s, was families were forced out of their homes because people lost jobs.

Unemployed Hooverville residents took any available work, such as fruit picking or packing. John Steinbeck wrote about a family who lived in a California Hooverville in his 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Once they got a job and means to pay for themselves and their loved ones, they would move into stable housing out of the Shantytowns.

Today there are “help wanted” signs everywhere. Many living in encampments chose to live on the beach for free, eat breakfast at food banks and take daily snacks from charity groups. I understand that some people today are not living like this by choice, but that is the exception to the rule.

The second big problem today is drugs and alcohol. Back then recreational drugs were unheard of, most of the drugs homeless people are addicted to now were not invented, like meth, crack and many prescription pills.

A third problem is mental illness. About a fifth of the population has a mental illness and about 50 percent of the homeless have a MI.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were asylums for those with mental issues. By the height of institutionalization in 1955 about a half a million people were living in state-run psychiatric facilities, according to a May 2021 Atlantic story (“The Truth about Deinstitutionalization”).

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal provided public works projects and other economic programs to try and end the shantytowns. However, there were many corrupt politicians, so a vast majority of the money never went to those who needed it. And today, I am so glad we don’t have a problem with corruption. I know all the tax dollars are going to those who need it the most.

What created the problem in the 1930s? Was it everyone living outside their means, was it the market crash, was it Calvin Coolidge presidency, was it Herbert Hoover “a chicken for every pot, and a car in every backyard,” was it the Franklin D. Roosevelt New Deal?

What brought an end to the shantytowns? Was it FDR’s New Deal, was it World War II or was it time?  Ask 100 different professionals and get 100 different answers.

Today is similar to the 1930s because we all see the problem, and we all know that our solution is the right one and yours is the wrong one.

Homeless encampments on Venice Beach popped up as the unemployed opted for living on the sand.

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5 Responses to Shantytowns/Hoovervilles Were Homeless Encampments

  1. Lee Sand says:

    Wow! Informative comparison. Good information for me to think more about.

  2. DJ McKenna says:

    The sum-up quote at the end of the Vanity Fair article you mentioned is:

    “In order to truly fix our broken approach to mental illness, there needs to be a change in attitude: one that goes from seeing people as inherently dangerous to treating them as human beings in need of help.”

    I would say the same applies to our homeless population.

    The homeless situation–especially the growth or entrenchment of camps during Covid–was a very complicated, multi-tiered mess of hurdles that both Pub and Dem mayors, city councils and governors had just as much trouble solving as Governor Nusom. (Am I wrong or is one main intent of this article to try to coin or popularize the phrase ‘Gavin Ghettos’?) Whatever. Any article about the homeless crisis that does not mention and acknowledge the Martin vs. Boise ruling of the 9th Circuit Court upholding that it was ILLEGAL for any city to deny/move homeless encampments UNLESS it provided designated housing or campsites elsewhere. There was also the CDC’s edict/recommendation NOT to dismantle outside homeless encampments and move people indoors in group settings — as that was bound to lead to virus passing at a much higher rate. And anyone reading the news witnessed the endless NIMBY protests and letters and rage, demonstrated by nearly every Los Angeles neighborhood (including ours) whenever some temporary local homeless sheltering location near them was proposed, so that site after site after site fell through and no alternatives could be offered in order to break down the encampments, per the law.

    Also, people who seem to hate the homeless, depict them all as lazy, drug-addled, moochers? Seem to think that officials could simply round them all up and ship them out to some unseen homeless dump in the desert. However, America is NOT in business of internment camps, yet. The unhoused have to choose to go to someplace they feel safe and want to spend their time. Several homeless activists I’ve spoken to or read mention that beach cities are a draw not because of lax laws but because: 1 – they have accessible public showers and restrooms. 2 – they have tourists and street traffic that allow for panhandling income. 3 – they have cafes and restaurants whose proprietors or dumpsters offer a chance to score leftovers. 4. And police presence and surveillance in tourist areas tend to make them safer.

    Our mental health facilities and support systems are totally lacking. As the Vanity Fair article mentions — our jails and prison systems have replaced the asylums of old. And the opiate crisis has led to so many former functioning middle-class Americans becoming herion addicts — sadly, with the initial pain drugs being prescribed (and often over-prescribed without sufficient dire warning) by their own doctors.

    And California is one of the Red State governor and mayors favoring dumping ground for their unwanted homeless. We are supported way more than our local fair share of those down on their luck or runaways or mentally ill or drug addicted OR — just like the depression-era homeless put out of their jobs because of the Covid crisis.

    Homelessness is such a complicated and resistant problem. Pooling all our conflicting ideas might actually be needed to overcome the many hurdles in our official’s and community’s way. Because a crisis is not solved by simply calling names.

  3. M says:

    Wonderful article. Good comparison….Love all of your other articles, as well. Keep up the good work!

  4. Nicker says:

    Great Article – Reece. Keep writing. You certainly have a talent!

  5. Andrea says:

    Very informative perspective, but I trust your comment about ‘no corruption’ today was ironic…the ‘homeless industrial complex’ is alive and well, subsidized by tax payer dollars.

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