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Homeless in Chicago: Echoes from the Great Depression

This article comes to us from Chris Wright is a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. labor history and author.

It is a sadly obvious fact that our country is at a stage comparable in many respects to both the late 1920s and the 1930s, during the Great Depression. Economic stagnation, income inequality, high unemployment (as of February 2016, 10.1% or 14.7%, depending on the source), and increasing homelessness are only a few of the parallels between that earlier time of despair and our own.

The rise of demagoguery and bigotry in our mainstream political discourse is another clear analogy, reminiscent of demagoguery in Europe during the Depression.

So it may be of interest to recall conditions in that earlier time, since things are likely to get worse in the coming years. As a historian who has studied Chicago’s public homeless shelters in the 1930s, I’d like to consider that topic here.

Some readers may, perhaps, recognize similarities between what I’ll describe and what they have personally experienced.

In 2014, a “point-in-time” count of Chicago’s homeless population found 5,329 people in shelters and another 965 unsheltered residents. But according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, there are in fact 64,000 homeless adults, 48,000 homeless children with parents, and 12,000 people younger than 21 without parents or guardians. (These numbers include people without a permanent residence who live with friends or relatives.)

Compare that with the 30,000 to 60,000 homeless residents who were in Chicago at any given time in the late 1920s, when the city had about 300,000 more people than it does now. Or, even more tellingly, compare the 5,329 in shelters on one night in 2014 to the 20,000 who coursed through shelters the entire month of February 1932, in the depths of the Depression.

These figures are ominous.

Even more ominous, though, is the fact that homeless shelters have been closing in recent years, as government funding has become less reliable. For example, the North Side Housing Shelter closed in November 2010; Catholic Charities closed two family shelters in the summer of 2015; and the New Life for Men shelter is currently closed because of funding cuts.

In our present political environment, such trends are likely to continue. And conditions in shelters are likely to worsen, as the few that remain open become overcrowded. Like they were in the Great Depression.


Conditions in most shelters (particularly for men) during those years were abysmal, and give us evidence of how harmful “austerity” politics is to the poor.

One man who had found it necessary to apply to a shelter in 1935 described it as follows:

Here [in shelters] privacy is a forgotten word. On a cold or rainy day, or during the evenings, men are crowded into the basement or assembly room—German, colored, Pole, Greek, Mexican, American, Irish, Russian, and every nationality… Here also are degenerates, drunks, working men, bums, clerks, old men with all ambition gone, young men whose every ideal has been crushed, all herded together. One almost tastes the stench of unclean bodies, and the sulphur odor from fumigated clothes. For quite a while this lack of privacy nearly drove me nuts.

First of all, the physical facilities–warehouses, old factory buildings, schools commandeered for the purpose–were not exactly calculated to lift the spirits.

For instance, a “recreation” room with few amenities was typically overcrowded with men dozing on uncomfortable seats, standing silently or sitting on the floor because there were not enough chairs or benches, a few perhaps playing checkers or dominoes quietly in a corner.

Much worse, though, was the “bull pen,” a dark, damp, dismal place located in the basement, where men could go to escape supervision. Often littered with cigarette butts, wads of chewing tobacco, crusts of bread, and discarded clothing, it had no furniture except some backless benches on which “clients”–or “inmates,” as they were called–might sleep or have a drink.

The sleeping rooms were sometimes so densely packed with cots that it was necessary for the occupant to crawl in from the head or the foot of the bed, which violated state health regulations. Having been sent to bed at 8:00 or 9:00, the inmate spent the night trying to get to sleep while surrounded by 25 or even a hundred other men, until awoken at 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. The cacophony of “snoring, sneezing, moaning, sleep-talking, and coughing,” to quote one account, would likely keep him awake for hours.

For most men there were no pillows or sheets. As for the blankets, they seemed to one reporter to be made of paper, which left the men 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 prey.

Meal service, too, was inadequate, especially in the years before 1935 when only two meals were served a day, at 6:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. (It was assumed that if the men got hungry in the interim, they could go out and beg for food or find odd jobs that might pay a few cents.)

The food itself was not infrequently rotten or bug-ridden, and most of the time was quite bland–cold beets, weak coffee, unbuttered bread, a tin bowl of beef stew, an old piece of fruit, etc.

In general, the central fact of shelter life in the 1930s was regimentation. One author summed it up well: “When the man enters the shelter he learns the meaning of the word ‘line.’ He is a ‘linesman’; he lines up to see the caseworker; he lines up for his meals; he lines up to fumigate [every two weeks] and then to bathe; he lines up to wash, to shave, to use the toilet, and to go to bed. ‘I spend,’ said one man, ‘half my waking hours either standing and waiting for something or sitting and waiting for someone.’” “Why in hell don’t they line us up against the wall and shoot us and get it over with,” grumbled one inmate.

Lines six blocks long to get food, serpentine lines that might take two hours to walk through.

“Watchmen” were always present to intimidate and challenge the men, especially if they were drunk, in which case they might be beaten–with clubs, sawed-off baseball bats, or lead pipes–and forced outside even in the cold night air.

A reporter summed up the whole wretched environment: “The place has approximately the same effect as a jail. It is the individual against the world. The monotony of the same old faces, ideas, arguments, line, nothing to do but sit, finally gets under the skin.”

Through collective struggle and activism by the shelter men and social workers who represented them, conditions did improve a little, for example when lunch began to be served in late 1934. Likewise, after a winter of discontent in late 1931–protest demonstrations and individual acts of resistance occurring in shelters all over the city–a Special Activities Department was established to give the men more options for recreation.

In fact, Communist organizers had considerable success in some shelters as they advocated not only for better food and more humane treatment but, more broadly, interracial unity and a nationwide socialist movement.

Daily Communist-run meetings were held in a few shelters, in which the men discussed how best to improve conditions and which specific grievances should next be brought to the shelter supervisor. At the conclusion of these meetings, a researcher remarked, “the radical songs are sung–‘Solidarity,’ ‘We’ll Hang Hoover to a Sour Apple Tree,’ and the ‘Marseillaise.’ Misguided as it perhaps all is,” he continued, “it is rather a stirring sight to see men and boys stand erect at the end of the meetings and sing these songs with great emotional feeling.”

However, despite all the efforts of activists and thousands of shelter men, it proved impossible to significantly improve conditions in Chicago’s shelters. Pleading the necessity of “austerity” (to use contemporary language), political and economic authorities refused to divert substantially more resources to them.

And even when most of the shelters were shut down in 1935 and the men transferred to private quarters in rooming houses and tenements, the city’s relief administration continued to be so poorly funded that it frequently could not pay the men’s rent or provide them with adequate food or supplies. The second half of the 1930s saw crisis after crisis in the financing of relief, leaving thousands of people in dire want and misery.

The struggles of the unemployed to influence relief policy continued, but in the end it took World War II to finally solve their problems and raise their living standard.

Insofar as homeless shelters today are, in most cases, not as inhumane as those in the 1930s, we have decades of popular movements, popular pressure, and public-spirited advocacy to thank. Because of this, in fact, it is unlikely that most shelters will ever be allowed to sink to quite the level they were at in the Depression.

Instead, what will happen is that the loss of government funding will force more shelters to close. Meanwhile, more people will require access to shelters because of long-term unemployment. The “shared sacrifices” and “tough decisions” that policymakers insist we must all accept because of government budget deficits will, as ever, disproportionately affect the poor, even as corporate profits remain at historic highs.

Whether we can distribute the economic sacrifices more equitably and so prevent history from repeating itself depends, ultimately, on whether we can build popular movements even greater than those that came to fruition during the Great Depression. At no time in our history has the task of “raising consciousness” been more urgent.

Chris Wright is a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. labor history, and the author of Notes of an Underground Humanist and Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States. His website is

Bishop Sally Dyck – 11th Annual Awards Banquet and Benefit Keynote Speaker

“Wherever I am in ministry, I envision a community of people studying scripture, exercising the disciplines of our faith, and discovering the joy of sharing faith with others through word and deed,” says Bishop Sally Dyck, episcopal leader of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church. “As a result, my vision is that the United Methodist Church and its membership will become a spiritually vital and energized body of believers who make a difference in every community as well as the world.”

Bishop Sally Dyck

Born in Ritzville, Washington into a Mennonite family, Bishop Dyck joined the United Methodist Church as a young adult.  She graduated magna cum laude from Boston University College of Liberal Arts with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science and magna cum laude from Boston University School of Theology. She received a certificate from the Ecumenical Institute which is a joint program of the World Council of Churches and the University of Geneva, Switzerland. She also received a Doctor of Ministry from United Theological School, Dayton, OH, in Black Church Studies as a Bishop James S. Thomas fellow.

Bishop Dyck was ordained an elder in the East Ohio Conference in 1981, and before entering the episcopacy was a pastor and a district superintendent in that conference. In 2004 she was consecrated a bishop and assigned to lead the Minnesota Area of the Church until September 1, 2012, at which time she was reassigned to the Northern Illinois Conference. Her leadership priorities are based on the Great Commandment and the Great Commission: to guide people to love God with their whole selves and daily practice spiritual disciplines and to share God’s love with those who do not know God.

Upon her arrival in Chicago, Bishop Dyck quickly recognized the need for the local United Methodist Churches to be emboldened to make a difference in Chicago. She has established an Urban Strategy initiative with the goal of putting together a graduated plan that allows every congregation a place to begin within their level of capability; to identify what is already going on and to address four key areas: Community Safety, Restorative Justice, Education and Literacy as well as Food Deserts. “I’m new to Chicago but my heart breaks for this city; the city that everyone loves so much and yet has such an underbelly of need, poverty, corruption, violence and fear. I feel called to empower the United Methodist Church to make a difference in Chicago so that it may be a place of peace for its children and communities.”

Bishop Dyck has served on the board of directors for the General Board of Global Ministries, chairing the Personnel Committee, was elected to the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches in 2006 and became president of the General Commission on Communication of The United Methodist Church in 2008.  Throughout her service in the wider church, her mission has been to direct and empower the church to transform the world through its calling and witness. Sally’s personal mission statement is taken from the communion liturgy: “…one in Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to the world.” She is an advocate for the United Methodist Church’s “Imagine No Malaria” effort which is working to end preventable deaths from malaria in Africa.

Believing that God wants people to experience wholeness in all parts of their lives, she also encourages the faithful to take up disciplines of nutrition and exercise that support physical health. Bishop Dyck begins her day with prayer, Bible study, a 3-6 mile run and works out 2-3 times a week. “Over the years I have had core principles that are at the heart of my ministry. Social and personal holiness are central to my life, faith, and ministry as are holy, healthy habits of body, mind and soul.”

She has been married to the Rev. Kenneth Ehrman, a United Methodist elder, since 1976. The two have traveled the globe together by plane, bicycle, and on foot.

The Genesis Project Teams Up with Chef Diane Stojentin for 16-week Culinary Training Course

Chef Diane Stojentin wasted no time getting participants in The Genesis Project’s new 16-week culinary training course into the kitchen.

After a brief presentation on sanitation and food handling as well as the ceremonial handing over of knife and peeler sets – compliments of a generous benefactor – the five (5) participants found themselves deep into preparation of the first lesson’s meal: vegetarian chili.

Participants preparing their first meal: vegetarian chile!

Participants preparing their first meal: vegetarian chile!


“At the end of this course, participants will have the skills necessary to find employment in a kitchen,” says Diane Stojentin, Owner of Top of the Food Chain Catering and former chef in Charlie Trotter’s Trotter’s To Go walk-in grocery in Lincoln Park.

“I am looking forward to helping them think like chefs – looking at ingredients and how to experiment as well as building their palettes.”

“I also expect a lot in terms of helping them be ready for the pace and demands of a kitchen environment.”

The training, which runs weekly through mid-November, will cover basic flavor profiles and spicing as well as the creation of more complex dishes like risotto, roasted beef and quiche. It will also cover knife handling, packaging and food marketing. Chef Diane also plans for participants to assist her in four (4) practical sessions during which participants will help her prepare meals for actual clients.

Sofije Gurzakovic, the newest participant in A Just Harvest’s AGUA program (Above Ground Urban Agriculture) and a student in the course, says she is looking forward to “knowing what she doesn’t know [in the kitchen]” and believes this could be an excellent door into a line of work that she already enjoys.

“I could do this for the rest of my life,” she says.

A Just Harvest is a Rogers Park non-profit that runs one of the longest self-standing Community Kitchens in Chicago. Founded in 1983, A Just Harvest has served 1.36 million meals at the hands of nearly 170,000 volunteers. In addition to the Community Kitchen, A Just Harvest serves as a leading voice for the poor and marginalized in Chicago through Northside P.O.W.E.R. (People Organized to Work, Educate and Restore). The organization also creates meaningful economic opportunities through The Genesis Project, which facilitates lifetime change for beneficiaries.

Contact Rev. Marilyn Pagán-Banks, A Just Harvest’s Executive Director, or Anthony Boatman, Director of The Genesis Project for more details.

Just Lunch Opens for Business

Just Lunch is so much more than the adverb modifier suggests.

Launched at the end of August, Just Lunch is A Just Harvest’s new lunchtime offering at the Community Kitchen. Unlike evening meals, which are provided free of charge to anyone on any day, Just Lunch offers meals on a paid basis.

Guests enjoying delicious adobo and arroz con gandules from Just Lunch / A Just Harvest

Guests enjoying delicious adobo and arroz con gandules from Just Lunch / A Just Harvest

“Just Lunch is a great opportunity for us to build a customer-base without the up-front costs of kitchen rental and start-up,” says Angela Mascarenas, Lead Organizer of the Spice and Rice Women’s Cooperative and one of the chefs helping to prepare meals.

“Our goal is to have 4 – 5 women preparing here on a regular basis and supporting their families with the proceeds.”

The Just Lunch menu includes a number of Asian and Latin favorites like Arroz con Gandules, Chicken Adobo, tamales, and egg rolls.

Meals cost between $5 – $8 and guests are invited to dine-in or take food to go. Delivery is also offered for customers in close proximity to the kitchen.

In addition to individual meals, Just Lunch provides catering for large-group events, and has experienced some early success with this.

“The food was excellent – different and unique,” says Shannon Callahan, Director of Education and Employment at Howard Area Community Center, which used Just Lunch for a recent Community Support Advisory Council (CSAC) meeting of 30 people.

“This may sound corny, but our members actually clapped when we told them the meal was prepared by a local women’s cooperative.”

Going forward, Just Lunch is exploring ways to incorporate produce from the community garden into menu offerings. Just Lunch is also looking forward to expanding offerings to include Chicken Biryani when a woman of Pakistani-origin joins the cooperative in October.

A Just Harvest is a Rogers Park non-profit that runs one of the longest self-standing Community Kitchens in Chicago. Founded in 1983, A Just Harvest has served 1.36 million meals at the hands of nearly 170,000 volunteers. In addition to the Community Kitchen, A Just Harvest serves as a leading voice for the poor and marginalized in Chicago through Northside P.O.W.E.R. (People Organized to Work, Educate and Restore). The organization also creates meaningful economic opportunities through The Genesis Project, which, through initiatives like the Just B.I.T.E.S. (Business Incubators That Encourage Sustainability) Program, the parent of Just Lunch and Spice and Rice, facilitates lifetime change for beneficiaries.

Contact Anthony Boatman, Director of The Genesis Project, or Angela Mascarenas of Spice and Rice for more information or to book your next catering event.

The Genesis Project + Pro Chef Matt Halack = New Pizza on the Menu

Not only are A Just Harvest’s Apprentices intelligent, thoughtful, and passionate youth, but apparently they are also great pizza chefs!

See this video of Chef Matt Halack, Owner of Grateful Bites, a northside-based personal chef and catering company, working with Apprentices in The Genesis Project as they explore ways to use the Community Garden and Kitchen to develop delicious and potentially marketable products. Could we see a “Jalapeno Genesis” offering on Grateful Bites’ menu ? Stay tuned…

Production: Danielle Carroll

It’s About the Veterans

At a time when news out of the Veterans Affairs (VA) is largely negative, A Just Harvest is over a year into a partnership with the VA that places a Social Worker in the Community Kitchen once a month to help veterans access services.

The initiative, which was given a “kick-off” boost by Senator Dick Durbin’s Office, has already helped over 30 veterans access housing and other services. It has also included one-off events like the Crockpot Lunch, which brought together active-duty personnel from Lovell Federal Health Care Center and area veterans for a “thank-you” lunch and lessons in healthy cooking.

Contact Carmelo Logalbo, A Just Harvest Board Member, for more information.