Tenants pay rents at the new Baker Heights government housing project in post World War II era Everett. Photo courtesy of Everett Public Library.

Tenants pay rents at the new Baker Heights government housing project in post World War II era Everett. Photo courtesy of Everett Public Library.

What it was like to be homeless during the Great Depression

After bouncing around the country, the memoir’s author built a stable life in Everett.

By Margaret Riddle / perspectivepast@gmail.com

In 2005 the Washington State Legislature passed the Homeless and Housing Assistance Act to fight a growing homeless crisis. The following year the Snohomish County Homeless Policy Task Force (HPTF) began a project called Everyone At Home NOW, hoping to end homelessness in the county by 2016. Yet in 2016 West Coast cities declared a homelessness emergency. Loss of affordable housing, rising medical costs and alcohol and drug addiction were epidemic. The homeless count included a large number of teens, veterans and families.

How did we get to this point? Certainly homelessness has always been with us, but what is different now and can looking back help us deal with our current crisis?

The term “homeless” was not commonly used until the 1980s. Before then, a person without shelter was a hobo or transient and the term was usually applied to men. There were times when political and economic changes spurred homelessness including Indian tribal displacement and family separation following the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855; the 1891-1892 Everett development boom; the early-1900s industrialization period and the massive arrival of immigrants; the 1930s Great Depression years; the World War II era housing crisis; the 1970s Boeing Bust unemployment and more.

Single Room Occupancy Hotels (SROs) and boarding houses once offered low-cost rooms and for decades the downtown business core served, often reluctantly, as a community shelter of sorts with its pool halls, restaurants and stores. The library provided, and still provides, a safe public day space. As SROs disappeared and businesses moved away from downtown, our churches, hospitals, orphanages, shelters and a host of agencies over the decades were left to do heroic work, with some government programs to aid them. A big change came in the 1980s when funds were cut for affordable housing and aid for the mentally ill. In the 2000s a severe opioid drug crisis escalated the growing street count.

Both Everett and Snohomish County have made strides in dealing with this crisis, lowering the number of chronic homeless, but today the situation is still overwhelming and it’s hard for us as individuals to feel that our small efforts can help. It’s easy to get buried in the overall statistics and forget that each person counted has a personal story.

“Once a Hobo … The Autobiography of Monte Holm,” written by Holm and Dennis L. Clay and published in 1999, is one man’s story of living homeless during the 1930s Great Depression, a time when economic hardship was felt by nearly everyone in the nation and thousands of people were out of work.

Monte’s childhood memories were happy ones, centered on the Lutheran Church in Clarkston, where his father was minister. He had a loving family — Mom, Dad and five children — and all their needs were met. One day Monte’s father told them, “We’re going to move to Montana and start a church there for the Lord” and the Holms moved to the small town of Rapelje. Their life changed suddenly when Monte’s mother died in childbirth, leaving his father to raise six children. Two of the youngest were adopted out.

A few years later Monte’s father married a stern woman who did not get along with Monte, and when he was 13, she forced him to leave home. The year was 1930, at the start of the Great Depression. Still a kid, knowing nothing of the rigors and dangers ahead for him, Monte took to the road to stay alive. Riding the rails was free but dangerous transportation and he joined hundreds of others doing the same in search of what he later called “rumors of work.” His traveling took him from Montana to Eastern Washington, North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Minnesota and eventually to Everett in the late 1930s, when he decided to put down roots.

In 310 pages, Monte wrote of his experiences on the road and the people he met. It was a hard life for anyone and few hobos were younger than Monte. In his words, “hunger and danger were constant companions.” He had to deal with extreme weather, mean railroad bulls, sexual predators, thieves and con men but, along the way he also found many caring, helping hands.

Most jobs were temporary, work done for a meal, but some that paid well had their downsides, like sheep-herding in Montana that required living for long periods of time in solitude, doing rigorous work, often in freezing weather. In the big cities, Monte stood in food lines for 12 hours or more. Each day he learned new survival skills, sometimes walking from town to town and asking for work in exchange for food at houses marked as friendly by other hobos. When hobo camps were full, town jails sometimes provided shelter on cold nights.

Monte Holm arrived in Everett in the late 1930s when there were three hobo camps in town. As he wrote: “During my first three months in Everett, the city seemed much like every other I had visited. Then something strange happened. I started liking the place. It started to feel like home even though I was on the streets. I decided to stay in Everett, to put down roots.” It was also in Everett that he discovered a lifetime occupation.

Here he found many helping hands, like the manager of Werner’s Grocery who occasionally had work for him and who extended him credit for food. Slowly Monte saved enough money to afford lodging. At one hotel, he befriended an elderly dying man who insisted on giving Monte his 1929 Chevrolet. Now with wheels, Monte’s possibilities improved for finding work. He got a job at the Buggie Packing Plant, a clam canning factory on the Everett waterfront. It was here that he met his future wife Ruth.

The salvage business gave Monte consistent and profitable work and he learned the trade at Riverside Junk Company, owned and operated by Etta Michelson and her sons Moe, Leo and Jerome. In the hard times, many mills had closed down, some permanently, and Monte helped salvage materials and equipment from those mills. Moe Michelson, who later served as an Everett City Councilman, recalled in an interview in the 1970s that Riverside Junk thrived during the Great Depression. Working with the Michelsons, Monte salvaged scrap iron and bricks from the old Clark Nickerson Mill, dismantled an old sawmill in Verlot and in 1939 helped take out the Seattle-Everett interurban rails. Ruth and Monte, with daughter Karen, eventually moved to Moses Lake where he set up his own salvage business.

The Everett Public Library has a circulating copy of “Once a Hobo,” and it’s an excellent read. While we have different challenges dealing with homelessness today, luckily there are many in government, non-profit groups, shelters and the private sector working together on temporary and long-term solutions. And as Monte’s story reminds us, our small, individual efforts are important too. Each of us can be part of the solution if we meet the challenges with open minds and open hearts.

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