Homeless of the Depression Years . . . by One o’the Nine

Alice sez: Over the holidays I noticed what seemed to be more homeless people in the downtown area than usual, presumably because the shelters are there, although it may be that they tend to be less noticeable when the weather is warm. Then I noticed in the morning paper a suggestion in a letter to the editor that SLC should consider using various abandoned grocery stores around the city to house the homeless, noting several lying empty for the past several years. I have no idea if the writer meant that each building be heated, but he noted that even if they had to use sleeping bags rather than beds, they would be out of the awful cold and have a roof over their heads. I know some people who live near one of those empty stores and I can just imagine how happy they’d be as morning came and those people left their shelters to seek food for the day. I don’t think today’s society would be ready to accommodate door to door begging. Are we less compassionate? It’s not for me to say.

Growing up in the country as I did, I remember seeing an occasional solitary figure walking along the country roads in the late 1940s. We called them “hobos.” He–it was always a man–would come to the front door and knock and ask if we had a little food to spare. Mama always made up a plate of leftovers, such as she had, and he always seemed to be willing to eat whatever was there, and did. Then he’d thank us profusely for our good graces and walk on alone. I remember being very afraid of them, yet feeling sorry for them too, and glad that it was not my decision how to handle these rare occasions.

Here’s how my late uncle remembered the homeless from the depression years:


009_9-3It is difficult to look back fifty or so years, and not think how simple and trusting life was in rural northern Florida at that time.

I remember during the depression when unfortunate people, who were unemployed and had nothing, rambled the countryside looking for odd jobs and/or handouts of food, clothing and a place for a night’s rest. Some of those unfortunates, which we referred to as bums and hobos, had scheduled routes they followed. They were not necessarily one-time beggars.

They made their rounds two or three times a year, and each time around Mama and Papa would take them in, feed them, bed them down (sometimes for two or three days), and send them on their way to their next stop. Life was so simple and trusting that our doors were seldom locked. Neither was anyone turned away hungry. I remember one named Tommy T, who was probably about 35 years old, but we kids thought of him as an old man.

Tommy T showed up at our door at least three times a year with his 8-foot plaited cow whip. Tommy always had his cow whip rolled together and hanging from his shoulder. He could crack his whip and could hit acorns or small pebbles with amazing accuracy. When he showed up at our house he almost always stayed at least three days. We kids were glad to see him come by for he would always take his cow whip and help us pen the cows. After the cows were penned, he would show off his whip cracking and hitting accuracy.

Then there were the regular family, Rufus and Mandy. They seemed to make it to our house at least four times a year, but we didn’t look forward to their visits the way we did Tommy T’s. Rufus and Mandy had two small girls, one about two-years-old, and the other a small baby. The first time Mama and Papa fed them and gave them a place to sleep for a few days. Mama even tore up some old sheets and gave to Mandy to use as baby diapers.

The main reason we didn’t look forward to Rufus and Mandy’s visit was that they didn’t know what a bath was. If either of them ever had a bath, it was not evident when they visited us. Rufus was lazy, and never offered to help with the chores, but he and Mandy were always at the table when it was time to eat, both so rank from the lack of bathing that there was always a swarm of flies accompanying them. They wouldn’t even take a hint to bathe, even when we kids would hold our noses when they came near.

There was one who came by our house once or twice a year, I can’t remember his name, but we called him Onion Tops. Mama used to cut the green leaves from onions and cook them as greens. Believe it or not they aren’t bad when you’re hungry. And this old guy was obviously hungry and really liked cooked onion tops for he always requested that Mama cook onion tops when he was there.

I remember one time when he ate almost a whole bowl of onion tops. Believe me, Mama’s bowls weren’t small. He ate until everything was gone, then rubbed his stomach and declared that he wished he had a belly as big as a tar barrel so he could hold more onion tops. Old Onion Tops would help with the chores, and he was relatively clean.

As the depression began to ease, and with Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA, all the bums just kind of faded away, and we never knew what happened to them. We have, over the years, often thought of those unfortunate people, and wondered about their fate. We have also thought of how, with the passing of the depression and the outbreak of World War II, the simple trusting life just kind of faded away too, and no one noticed it was slipping away.

Postscript: I certainly don’t mean to romanticize either the homeless or their situations, nor do I wish to judge why they’re in that state at all, but I have to say that the homeless in Uncle’s generation were very colorful people. No wonder so many southerners became writers with such wonderful–note–“colorful and memorable” characters.

14 thoughts on “Homeless of the Depression Years . . . by One o’the Nine

  1. Very touching indeed.

    Onion top…spring onion perhaps? It’s delicious and tasty if sprinkled in hot soups together with celery… next, dip plain whole meal bread in it and …yummy!!!!

    • RTL: What would we cooks do without the odious and homely but delicious onion! Yes, onion tops are wonderful additions to all kinds of things, aren’t they? My best egg salad is made very simply with mashed eggs, green onion tops and just the right amount of mayonnaise or other dressing with salt and pepper to taste. Yum!!!!

  2. There is a large soup kitchen in the basement of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church, one block from my office. I’m sure Andrew Mellon, who donated huge sums of money for the construction of this magnificant building, never dreamed of homeless people getting daily meals in his shrine to the Lord. My parents always referrred to the church as “Mellon’s Fire Escape.” But I digress. Once I week, while taking a stroll around S’liberty, I am approached by a man who probably is homeless. He always asks the same question, “Can you spare some change so that I can get a meal?” I always give him the same response, “You can get a free, hot meal at the church.” He moves on, never in the direction of the church. I have a friend who has an unorthodox approach to mendicants. When asked for money, he reaches in his pocket for a dollar or two and hands it to the beggar with the question, “Now, you don’t plan to spend this on food, do you?” The surprised beggar usually stammers and says no. There will always be beggars. The Bible has stories about them, and they show up in literature from all eras. Some of these folks may not be like the ones from the Depression, people who were unemployed and down on their luck. The homeless I see usually are mentally ill or addicted to alcohol or other substances. I’d be interested in hearing their individual stories.

  3. Indeed they are. In the years when I rode the bus for transport, I encountered plenty of people going through tough times. I was, too.

    I’d get annoyed when one of them would approach me for bus fare because if I said I didn’t have change, they would get angry. I really didn’t have change for the bus — I bought a monthly pass so I’d always have
    transportation. When money is in sort supply, one does what one must to survive — the panhandlers didn’t seem to get that.

  4. Here our Father Joe, of St. Vincent de Paul’s, started a shelter for the homeless on the far reaches of downtown. The lady who owned the Padre’s at the time, made some very big donations, and Father Joe expanded his operations. Shelter expanded into job training, homes for those who were sober and helping themselves, clinics, a food bank, and now apartments for low income families.

    I volunteered there for years first in the kitchens then later on the loading dock until my hands grew so bad I couldn’t do the lifting.

    Slowly the city grew around Father Joe. The Trolley barn and main station was built next door. Catty corner the Padre’s built their new ball park. Now the beautiful condo buildings surround St. Vincent de Pauls, and the homeless still line the streets there at night.

    Not only did I work down there, work with the homeless and the ball park, I’ve been homeless and broke. I really understand….as yes, many today are mentally ill and using drugs or alcohol to self medicate.

    It would be nice to go back to the innocence of your uncles yesterday, but it will not every happen.

    • Oh but, Mage, I love that kind of comment, so full of passion–my favorite kind! It’s really sharing and different perspective, which is what I thought blogs were all about anyway. Not only do you know what it means to be homeless, you also know what it means when people say so oft-handedly, “YOU’ve come a long way, Baby!” I’m glad I’m on this end of your story! And have you as a blogger friend.

  5. Alice,
    …Of a rich beggar
    I do meet these people occasionally on my way to the market, to the mosques and sometimes at our gate.

    This is one of the scenario in Kuala Lumpur…
    One particular “beggar” told me “proudly”, he owns three flats he bought from begging, schooled his children and living “quite comfortable”… Mind you? He is only in his early 40s, healthy, well built, clean dressing, partially blind, able to sit the whole day on his stool… I dropped by sometimes to chat with him so that he “says his prayer ” while sitting with box of tissue papers to give to contributors”.

    One day, he said to me ” Mam, Today my income would be lesser”. So I asked why? He said, “do you see there, I have a competitor”. I turned and looked at him again and I told him “Your income was fixed by Allah, and so is his. You would not get any lesser because of him. You are His subject, so is him. Don’ t you worry Mr.Jamal”,

    How I wished I was strong enough to say this “you are so able bodied, good looking, healthy and only partially blind…you could have gone to work and earn an honest living”… BUT I dare not. So, sometimes I did drop a dollar or two in his box.

    Of a mysterious man….
    One day, during a fasting month – in Ramadhan. One young man rang the bell to our house. I went and greeted him. He showed me an Islamic calender to buy. Its cost was ten dollars. I honestly told him, I only had a few dollars in my purse and tomorrow was Sunday. I have to buy food for breaking of fast for me and my children. I could only give you two dollars. He then looked at my “the then huge car”… I said, ya, the car is big but my bank account is quite dry”.

    He said, “But I can’t let you have this calender. It’s ten dollars BUT since you are sincere in giving – I shall pray so that Allah gives you 2000 Blessings and by Monday you shall have some money in you bank”.

    Gosh! Who was that? Saying prayer at my gate? Came Monday, the bank called… there was some money banked in by one long time customer that I almost gave up of hoping to get paid.

    This young man disappeared … I kept looking in case he went down the lane… no body was on the road!

    Of lady beggars…
    they would send children to beg and sometimes they have babies in their laps…looking so fragile and hungry… these are people from Cambodia.

    Of syndicated beggar…
    Using orphans to sell cds, calenders, books and other materials. They are driven in parking lots of hypermarkets and asked to sell those items. I don’t normally buy but just gave money for them to eat.

    Kidnapped children are brought back into Malaysia (from neighboring countries) with disguised looks and use by syndicates to beg… such inhuman acts by some “people”…

    Most of those beggars who loiter in the city center are being brought to community centers and being cared there.

    • Royaltlady, that is a most fascinating account of begging in a country with which I am unfamiliar. I must say it reminds me of several incidents I’ve had in India over the years, where similar customs prevail. This is one post where the comments are infinitely more interesting than the original post! I thank you so much for sharing your stories with me and other readers.

  6. Alice,
    Nowadays, beggars get lesser and lesser in the city center… for the locals, the government has community centers and old folks home for them. The foreigners? They were asked to leave or when they collected enough, they left the country.

    You know what my wish is… if I were to remain healthy and well in my old age…ehem, I am going through this 50’s tunnel already… I would like to spend time with them and share what little knowledge I have, encourage them to be strong physically and spiritually to prepare for the next world. Giving them encouragement, motivation, drive, uplift their spirits and make good the remaining days…AND if they are computer literate, invite them to do blogging ….Hahahahahaha…what say you?

    Thank you for constant visits to my blog.

  7. Things were so different back then. This was a great “stepping back in time” column that your uncle did. Where I grew up in Salem, during those years they had a lot of people referred to as “gypsies” and my grandmother used to feed them also…….I remember hearing some great stories about that.

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