Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Great Depression Shanties--Coming Our Way?

Most of the entire front page of today's Seattle Times is a sepia print of the "Hooverville" of plywood homes built just south of downtown's Smith Tower, which was at the time the tallest structure west of the Mississippi River. In the article, survivors of the Great Depression told how they made it through, giving advice seemingly to be applied today.

Of course, in the GD, unemployment was 25%; even after Roosevelt's huge expenditures he only managed to whittle that to 14%. Amity Shlaes, author of The Forgotten Man, the excellent work showing that stimulus spending by the government exacerbated the GD rather than bringing recovery, cites Stanley Lebergott and Richard Vedde, whose "data show average annual unemployment in the twenty percent range for a number of years – 1933, 1934, 1935. At points in 1937 or 1938, unemployment gets back to 20%," after temporary drops.

And what is unemployment today? Bureau of Labor statistics for December, 2008: 7.2% nationally. Interestingly, while some states, like Michigan, hard-hit by auto-makers' layoffs, had rates as high as 10%, they were offset by many states, like Wyoming, North and South Dakota and Nebraska, where unemployment was below 4%.

So, even though the present jobless situation isn't anywhere as dire as the GD (at least we have banks insured and many protective regulations in place) let's spend, spend, spend and ignore the lessons of history.

Cut to this weekend when we're dropping off our daughter back to her sorority at the University of Washington. We're stopped at a signal a few blocks from the campus. Eyes shift to a church parking lot, where people sit among rows of florescent pink domed tents and blue tarp lean-tos. Whereas the Depression housing was named for President Hoover who presided over the crash, this sight is "Nickelsville," a slap at Seattle mayor Greg Nickels, who ordered that vagrants huddled in shop doorways driving off customers, or spread out in clusters under freeways move, and he offered help and accommodation in shelters.

But they didn't want it. Nickelsville was the creation of homeless activists, some were the same ones who proudly oversee the roving "Tent City" that spent August, September and October at a church lot in my neighborhood. They're happy the tents are florescent pink to draw attention to the "plight" of these folk who feel just too cooped up in shelters where there are rules and requirements. Interestingly, as Nickelsville has endured, more and more rules have had to be implemented. Like no drinking; no outside visitors after 9 pm till the morning.

I came across a student video showing a few Nickelsville residents (which one-name filmmaker "Nathan" spells "Nicholsville") within a laughably pro-homeless script: "Homeless people fall victim to countless stereotypes. Allegedly, they are lazy people who lack intelligence. Allegedly, they chose to make nothing of their lives. Nothing could be further from the truth." Cut to a healthy-looking young man in a knit snow cap: "I'm a resident of Nickelsville and a homeless Marine Corps veteran."
Aren't there any services for Marines? Or, um, should I be skeptical of this guy, like I am of the many youthful beggars holding "Disabled Vietnam Vet" signs by freeway offramps?

What I find fascinating is the media's desire to make our present economic dip into "the worst crisis since the Great Depression." They have to, because unless they can get more people to buy their newspapers, watch their TV shows and click on their ad-framed websites, they, too, will have to sacrifice. But I'd betcha that no matter how difficult things get, they won't have to put cardboard in their shoes to cover holes, eat potato soup for weeks on end, or scrounge for plywood to build a home. Give up the daily Starbucks latte? Move in with a friend?

In fact, in the '30s when people were truly destitute, most had so much pride that they'd rather go hungry than be "on the dole" taking government handouts. And if you look at the photo of the Hooversville shanties, you'll notice that they're spread apart, not chock-a-block together like Nickelsville tents.
Reminds me of the words of Bilaam, the biblical anti-Semite prophet sent by King Balak to curse the Jews. When he opened his mouth, looking down from above the Jewish encampment spread at his feet, the only words that came out were the blessing, "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!"

What did he mean by that? What he saw was the way the Jews had arranged the openings of their tents irregularly, so none could peer into another's abode, in order to respect privacy.

Personal pride and pioneer self-sufficiency motivated the nation in the Great Depression, as did individual generosity to reach out and help. 'Twould be goodly, all right, if we could tend to our personal tents with pride rather than expect the government to assume huge debt for give-aways. It might be temporarily tough but compared to the lot of residents of those shanties in the picture, we've got it way easy.


  1. You should really investigate more before you start talking. Nickelsville has always had rules. When people organize into communities that’s part of it. Nickelsville is an intentional community, it is their home. The tents are crowded close together because they don’t have much space. Unlike shelters they can leave their belongings while they go about their business – doing laundry, looking for work, working the jobs that they have. Yes, many homeless people have jobs.

    Why do you put the word “plight” in quotes? Do you not believe it? Do you think they’re pretending? A lot of people are one hospital stay away from the street, one mortgage failure, one bank loss – and you know it. I belong to Veterans For Peace, and we have several homeless members. Is this a joke? Do you remember the Iraq vets who held up the sign during McCain’s campaign speech in St Paul that said “McCain Abandons Vets?” This is what they were talking about.

    Mayor Nickels has promised a lot of things, including an end to homelessness. Not much has changed. Seattle has never had enough shelter beds. People are turned away all the time – many know better than to try. Nickelsville is an autonomous, self governing community, a place for people to reclaim their vanishing self respect. You live on Mercer Island. A few whip lashes of this unstable economy and you might not be such a big shot. Even the Fave Host might have to start broadcasting from a bullhorn on 2nd and Pike.

  2. Jim, Nice to have you back.

    Actually, my source for "no rules originally" at Nickelsville was a Nov. 5, 2008 Seattle Weekly article by Aimee Curl, "Nickelsville Not What It Set Out to Be," in which she states "Nickelsville has evolved from its early days, when there were no rules or leadership structure."

    If Nickelsville is "an intentional community" and "their home," that means these people want to be there rather than find permanent, four-walls housing. Most shelters would allow residents to "leave their belongings while they go about their business."

    There is an assumption that these people are not responsible for their housing situation, but unless they are mentally ill or addicted, in which case they should be cared-for, they could find a place to live: A room-mate situation, advertised all over, would be a cheap option. There are always stop-gap jobs, including at MacDonald's or Hollywood Video or in child-care.

    I do think veterans should have government opportunities for assistance, and I do have compassion for those who lose their jobs. Friends, family, church and other charitable groups are there for temporary help. I think everyone should donate to such worthy causes. FareStart is one program that provides career training that will mean independence for graduates.

    On the other hand, the GD attitude of self-sufficiency is probably the best ammunition for weathering challenges. I know someone who lost his job (he was the support of a wife and three kids) whose answer to that was, "I've got to get creative and come up with a new way to earn money." He started his own small business while his wife took a secretarial temp job. It's not easy, but it never occurred to him to ask anyone else to pay his freight.

    And believe it or not, if I needed to, I'd work at a minimum wage job--I've held plenty.

  3. Do you really think that people would rather live in a tent in Seattle in January than “find permanent, four-walls housing?” Are you nuts? Do you think you are different than they are? “Intentional” means a better version of survival. Safety in numbers, camaraderie, how ever you want to say it. Don’t play dumb.

  4. Jim, interesting to note the difference in tone and content in our comments. Your ad hominim name-calling ("nuts," "dumb") don't address the issue, which is that Nickelsville residents are choosing to endure tents in a parking lot either for a political agenda or because they don't choose (or are unable) to engage a system of supports and opportunity that has demands and restrictions.

    I fear that some of them are being manipulated and exploited by those with a politics of victimhood, in which the homeless are "entitled" to governmental enablement for their lifestyles.

    In my previous comment I listed several means available to financially down individuals to manage during their difficulties and at the same time live indoors (with roommates, family, charity placements, shelters, employers). But taking advantage of these options requires initiative and industriousness; my post tries to show that these qualities were far more prevalent during the Depression than presently.

  5. I say “dumb” because you are, either intentionally or by default. It’s probably because of your privilege. You have never been to Nickelsville - I have. You don’t know any of the people involved - I do. You are wrong on your assessments; you make derogatory comments about the motives of people you don’t even know. That is dumb. You don’t want to live outdoors in the city in January because you know how cold and wet it is, and yet some how think these other people do. That is nuts.

    “Nickelsville residents are choosing to endure tents in a parking lot either for a political agenda…” I told you, they are choosing to do so because it is a viable alternative to the danger of the open streets. There are not enough shelter beds. “…or because they don't choose (or are unable) to engage a system of supports and opportunity that has demands and restrictions.” Again, there are restrictions (rules of conduct) in Nickelsville – you pointed that out in your original entry. So that is not the issue. The problem with the shelters is that most of them throw you out in the morning and make you take all your belongings with you. Yes, they do. And you can’t get anything done carrying all your stuff around with you all day.

    “I fear that some of them are being manipulated and exploited by those with a politics of victimhood, in which the homeless are ‘entitled’ to governmental enablement for their lifestyles.” What lifestyle would that be? Exposure to the elements? The right to have a rat crawl over your face? The only people who are “exploiting them” are you and that Fave Host of yours who use them as easy right wing bully material. These people are powerless, and only a coward would use a powerless people as fodder on a multi million dollar media channel.

  6. Remember, you're "dumb" or "a nut" if you disagree. Or maybe even a "wingnut". Must be more of that intellectually nuanced debate I keep hearing the Left is always engaging in.

    It's not just to sell papers, it's a way to advance an agenda of more government intervention. Not very different from any other of the thousands of prophets-of-doom we've had since time immemorial. "Global warming" anyone? (Or "climate change" or "climate crisis", whatever the latest name is) "We're all doomed, I tell you, doooooooomed. Unless you do everything I say. Which just so happens to enrich me and those like me and allows me and those like me to control everything. But never mind that, I'm really looking out for all of us."

    Different millennium, same old demagoguery.

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