Homelessness Circa 1931

“Wretched, bewildered, homeless men, looking for work, flocked to the cities… .The streets filled up like a measuring cup: a quarter full, half full, until everywhere you looked you saw shuffling, shabby men, wasted with hunger, shivering with cold, an invading army.

Though hopeless, they were not humble. They placed themselves at the doorsteps of the rich, an offense to their eyes. Their breadlines obstructed theater entrances and upset midtown merchants. They built shantytowns, called Hoovervilles, in tourist attractions like Central Park, near the reservoir, and Riverside Park, by the boat basin. Some of the rich closed their eyes; others formed charitable committees and gave generously.

But charity was no solution to a crisis of this magnitude. The cities, swamped by the new poor, had no money to feed them; people had stopped paying taxes. And the federal government refused to act.

— A description of the homeless in 1931, excerpted from Meredith Tax’s new novel Union Square (New York: William Morrow, 1988).