Shelter in Place

The most iconic image from the Great Depression centers on rural poverty—but then, as now, the misery of homelessness was perhaps worse in America’s cities.

Then

Dorothea Lange, 1936

Nipomo, California

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Then

Dorothea Lange, 1936

Nipomo, California

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

A Dust Bowl migrant may be the figure who most Americans would imagine when they think of Depression-era homelessness, and Dorothea Lange’s 1936 portrait of Florence Owens Thompson, sometimes called Migrant Mother, is easily the most famous depiction. Lange, a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, came across Thompson in Nipomo, California, where the latter was a 32-year-old migrant farmworker, traveling with her seven children to wherever she could find work. The images Lange shot were used to illustrate a wire-service story about hungry workers in the frost-ravaged pea fields. Roy Stryker, head of the FSA photo unit, declared the photograph to be the “ultimate” image produced by his organization.

But Migrant Mother’s iconic status could overshadow the fact that homelessness was also a major problem in American cities during the Depression, both for locals and for the unemployed people from out of town who had hoped to find relief in industrial centers. It’s difficult to determine exactly how many city-dwellers were homeless, but a national survey from 1933 estimated the number at 1.5 million people, half of whom were transients without a permanent address in any state.

A homeless man on Howard Street, San Francisco’s skid row, 1937. Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Sleeping men on skid row, San Francisco, 1937. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Most homeless people were unskilled laborers, but factory workers and domestic employees were also vulnerable to losing their jobs, and their homes. Perhaps most alarming to the American imagination was the plight of the white-collar workers—those who had seemingly achieved a level of security that should have kept them from the bread lines, but found themselves on the streets. Housing relief favored families, so many of the homeless were singles, or “unattached.”

Cities were overwhelmed by the newly homeless masses. In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt became president, and the federal government stepped in to help with the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), which devoted an initial fund of $500 million to relief efforts. This included the Federal Transient Program, which helped create a network of shelters around the United States for the homeless, many of whom were barred from receiving assistance from municipalities because they could not prove they once had a local address. Warehouses, offices, stores, garages, schoolhouses, and hotels were converted to homeless lodgings. Separate from these efforts, some people congregated in shanty towns that came to be called “Hoovervilles,” after the president on whom many blamed for their misfortune. One of the largest, in Seattle, sprawled over nine acres of public land and housed up to 1,200 people. Hoovervilles clustered around every major city in New York during the Great Depression; from 1931 to 1933, a Hooverville occupied what is now Central Park’s Great Lawn.

Near Brawley, in Imperial County, a homeless family of seven walks up the highway from Phoenix, Arizona, where they picked cotton, 1939. Courtesy of the Library of Congress
The mother and child from the same family, which was bound for San Diego. Lange reported that the father hoped to get on relief “because he once lived there.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Urban homeless shelters tended to be overcrowded, and of variable cleanliness. In Chicago, 43,000 men filtered through the city’s shelters between October 1930 and June 1931; shelter-dwellers in that city complained of dirty lodgings, with beds crammed together that smelled of urine and overflowing garbage. In New York, thousands streamed through the Municipal Lodging House, which had opened in 1886, and its two annexes, which were created to handle the swell of Great Depression homeless. Together, these three facilities provided 5,856 beds nightly, predominantly for men. Lodgers slept in bunk beds and received meals that consisted of—according to a 1933 article in The New Republic—vegetable stew that occasionally had beef in it, accompanied by stale bread and watery coffee.

Transient men outside of a shed in San Francisco, 1936. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Roosevelt administration put an end to FERA after just two years, in 1935; the president was loath to provide handouts, favoring the creation of jobs. He replaced FERA with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which focused on providing work. Nearly 600 federally run shelters were shut down, with the goal of transferring those who could work into WPA programs. Others would have to rely on the hodgepodge of aid that had existed before: state and city-run relief efforts propped up by charities such as the Salvation Army.

The effect was immediate and large, particularly in urban hubs which could no longer rely on federally funded centers to house their transient populations. San Francisco’s skid row—Howard Street, between Third and Fourth Streets—became a hub of activity for the homeless and jobless because of the presence of employment agencies. In 1937, Dorothea Lange captured the men who gathered there as they looked at the job boards, gambled with pennies in the street, drank, and slept on the sidewalks.

“In New York City, private agencies, straining to take care of their own, could not absorb the transient,” writes Joan M. Crouse in her 1986 book The Homeless Transient in the Great Depression. “A one-night census of the city conducted by the Emergency Relief Bureau found 6,000 men sleeping in subways, parks, abandoned buildings, terminals, and similar makeshift shelters.” Roosevelt’s rejection of direct relief would have a lasting effect on the way homelessness was dealt with in the United States, right up to present day.

Then

Dorothea Lange, 1936

Nipomo, California

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Now

Rosalind Fox Solomon, 2018–19

New York City

Now

Rosalind Fox Solomon, 2018–19

New York City

Rosalind Fox Solomon has been photographing ordinary people for nearly 50 years. Working in black and white, the New York-based photographer has documented those facing hardship—such as people living with AIDS, mothers living in poverty, or patients recovering in hospitals—with a singular dignity. Solomon does not approach her subjects as a street photographer, but, rather, as a portraitist; her subjects know she is taking their picture, and they have granted her their permission.

For Federal Project No. 2, Solomon photographed those living on the street in New York, a city where nearly 80,000 people are homeless. As always in Solomon’s work, their willingness to be photographed is an essential element of the interaction. Below, Solomon explains her process.

How I see someone—through the camera lens, through my own eyes—is crucial to my work. I try to approach people with some understanding about their lives. For this project, I found homeless men and women on the street, I learned something about them during brief conversations, and then I looked directly and carefully at them through my camera.

Tamantha.
Nick.

What unites my subjects is that all of them are, somehow or another, on the fringes of society. I have lived in New York since the early 1980s, photographing people I might meet on the street or in the park, though never specifically looking out for the homeless.

Cheryl.

I usually want my subjects to look directly at me. As I focus, they stare into my viewfinder. Although these are just a few individuals, they stand for the immense homeless population in New York and throughout the United States. The best that I can do is to enable the viewer to see what I saw. My subjects are all people who are on the fringes of society, people who we do not always look at. Perhaps that is because when we do, we feel guilty; when we do look, we question our own humanity.

A boy on the streets of New York, 1987.

When I photographed this boy (above) more than 30 years ago, I had been photographing passersby in New York. When I saw this child on the streets asking for help, I was shocked. I had seen that in Kolkata, but not in New York. I gave him money for food.

John.
Shihanda.

I hope that viewers with awareness of their own comfortable lives will look and feel the sadness of these homeless people and ask themselves why, in our abundant society, we cannot do more to alleviate this situation.

Tara and Angelica.
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