The Great Depression… A vision in my head. From the stock market crash in New York to the the dust bowl in the Great Plains, the country was in shambles, forcing multiple generations of families into a single household and then out of their house all together.
Once upon a time, I was a history instructor. I remember watching the faces of my students as they pictured families living in shantytowns on the outskirts out town. Women with crying newborns and elderly with breathing problems living in huts made of whatever salvage could be gathered. Filth. Struggle. Disease. John Steinbeck, writer of the Grapes of Wrath, and John Ford, who later directed the movie, help bring life to visions of these Hoovervilles – earning their name from President Herbert Hoover. Until recently, a shantytown was a vision that I watched on a screen, read about in a book or discussed in a classroom. I never thought I’d walk into one. Until seeing a Facebook post in late April, I never knew there was one tucked away along the Scioto River, hidden behind a flood wall and some foliage.
Over the next few weeks, I became determined to find the place, which was not always best described through Facebook posts. I climbed the flood wall and trampled through high grass and on my second attempt found a single dwelling. What I soon discovered was that like a city, which has a more densely populated center and then disperses, this community also has those individuals who choose to live further off from the crowd. No one was home that day. A friend later tipped me off to the fact that residents of this community are probably out “working their hustle” or doing whatever they do to make money during the day, so it is probably better to go in the evening.
On my next attempt, I took a friend. The first tent I found had been surrounded with string and marked with no trespassing signs. There were pretty good indicators the person who lived there wanted to be left alone. I was not sure if the rest of the community felt the same way. I thought it best not to go alone.
My friend and I pulled into Bob and Floyds.
“We’ll park next to the locals,” I remember him saying as I look over and see what can only be described as a hobo-buggy (to help gain mutual understanding and in no way derogatory). It was a shopping cart. However, its a shopping cart that someone used everyday and considered to be property, so it had been personalized. There were signs hanging from it, personal items within it and some trash that had accumulated throughout the day (the equivalent to the Mountain Dew bottles that manage to overtake my car in a day).
We were in the right place!
As I look up the flood wall, there is a narrow path worn in the grass not much wider than a deer trail. It had rained and for some reason I felt the compacted wet slightly muddy path would be more slippery than hoofing through the higher still wet grass surrounding. Either way this was not going to be fun in flats I wore to the office earlier that day. Going up wasn’t terrible. Going down, I got a little too confident. My friend also noticed and was quick to tell me to be careful or I was going to bust my butt. “Yeah right!,” I remember thinking. “I was born in West Virginia. I’m a ridge runner. My feet don’t even point straight. I’m made for…”
I hit the ground pretty hard and with some momentum. I slid nearly to the bottom. As I stood up, a little embarrassed and covered in wet grass, I turned around to a real life shantytown. Someone had to climb the flood wall in wet grass, in snow, in heat everyday. It is part of their survival. Climbing a flood wall may not seem like much for a bunch of river rats, but it’s not like pulling out of the driveway. I’d bust my butt every time I left the house and again trying to get back.
At the edge of the trees, you can spot the first dwelling, a partially wooden structure surrounded by a makeshift fence and several tents that are set up within the fenced in area that have different functions within the dwelling. There is even a tented area set up specifically for winter that is better covered. The resident is a man by the name of Butch (his story to come). As I talk with Butch, I look further into the woods and see several other dwellings along the path. Lights are strung along the outer edge of the community, and music is playing for all to share. This is all powered by generators. Off at the most distant dwelling, standing underneath a tarp for protection from the rain, which had recently picked back up, were several dirty male faces, clearly interested in presence of strangers. They seemed much more standoffish than my new friend Butch. A large bearded man with a smug face stood, arms folded across his chest seemed to be the occupant of the dwelling. One of the men gathered under the tarp decided to pace the path. He had a visually apparent visual impairment and seemed to be of a nervous, fidgety type. He was the most social of the remaining crew.
I love people. I love their stories. I wanted to be here. I couldn’t live here in high grass, mud, bugs that had decided I was a buffet, rain, humidity, discomfort, no running water except the nearby stream, barely a roof. These people with dirt smeared faces and stained tattered clothing don’t live a life of ease.
After talking to them, several things were observant. Most saddening was the abundance of mental health issues that it didn’t take my Masters in Psychology to undercover. There were reasons they could not or would not function in society that were due to cognitive or social/behavioral limitations. Some residents said they get a Social Security disability check further confirming what was already clear.
While thus far, the tent city sounds like a rather ugly place, there is another side. Yes, the people have their issues. If I have learned anything, it is that we all have our issues, our baggage, our flaws, even our phychoses at times. It’s part of the human experience, I think. These people, however, had more. They functioned as a whole, as a community. They all work throughout the day to bring things back to share. Sometimes that work is standing in all types of weather panhandling, which is not a very luxurious job. These individuals stand in heat or cold or rain to get fortunes. On this particular day at 7 p.m after a full day’s work, Butch had made $6. He did say some days are better. Though they have little, they share it. In the evenings, they get together an listen to music and connect with one another. There is a unity among them. And, they have only asked people to leave if they had a drug issue or were stealing. They also never seem poor. These people with so much to complain about made not a single complaint. They had nothing but good things to say about people and society, saying that people are generous for what they give and they understand when people can’t. They never say that people disrespect them or are insulting to them. Yet, we all have seen these people mocked on social media where they are photographed and ridiculed for buying a generator to keep warm or for using gathered scrap to make a sink to brush their teeth. They were also happy. They were not upset about the card life had dealt them or carried the entitlement of so much of the rest of society. These are people that get up everyday and do what they have to do to survive despite their limitations and find good things in life even though life offers them so little. Though they may not be able to function or have segregated themselves from normal society, they are in no way lacking in or deserving of humanity. The good in them was refreshing. The community even seems to have a lack of crime as all the people living there agreed that they really don’t have those kinds of issues and have had to ask people to leave a couple times for having drugs or stealing, but even the drug problem isn’t common there. Seeking additional information, I reached out to County and City officials about the shantytown, many of whom lacked knowledge of it’s existence, though tent city residents say it has been there for years. These are not trouble makers, addicts or hookers – all of which are still deserving of dignity. It’s a Hooverville, not a Skid Row, at least in this part of the city.