The plight of tenant farmers, who became homeless during the dust bowl era, during the great depression, was dramatized in John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, which was later turned into a movie. The struggles of the Joad Family, the main characters, reflect much of what’s happening today in the homeless community.
Just as Steinbeck familiarized himself with the migrant workers he used for his novel by visiting migrant camps in California, I get the grist for my mill from by hanging out with the homeless in Levittown, PA.
In the Steinbeck novel, the Joad family became homeless and had to pack up and drive their modified Hudson and hit the road, looking for work. They lost their home because the drought destroyed their crops and they defaulted on a bank loan. In their case, homelessness was a result of natural causes and economics, which is a common reason for homelessness today.
On their journey along Route 66, heading to what they believed would be the promised land, they camped in tent cities. Many others were in the same boat and there is a mass exodus going west. Along the way they meet other homeless people with whom, like the homeless in lower Bucks County, PA, they exchange information. By word of mouth, they met people who were returning from California who told them that the prospects there are not so good.
Nonetheless, the Joads pressed on; they had nowhere else to go.
History repeats itself. There are many similarities between the homeless Steinbeck depicted in 1939 and today. Like the homeless today, they run into obstacles.
In the novel, the Joads find it difficult to find work that will sustain them. There are more people looking for work than there is work. Those hiring people take advantage of the situation, according to the story, and exploit the migrant workers.
Life is tough for the average Joad. Word is the big farms conspired to get a monopoly. And the government created an economic mess with its sick policy of limiting production, even burning crops to increase prices! All that wasted food when there are hungry people!
The Joads scramble to find a suitable place to stay. They find Weedpatch Camp, a utility-supplied camp, run by a government agency under FDR’s New Deal, and discover that, like the Levittown shelter which has a long waiting line to get in, doesn’t have enough resources to care for all the needy families. One thing it did is protect the migrants from harassment from California deputies. Likewise, the homeless in the homeless shelter don’t have to be worried about being evicted by the authorities.
Yet the Joads and company persevere. When their dwelling becomes flooded, they move into an abandoned barn on higher ground.
And they help one another. Rose of Sharon keeps a man from starving by giving him her breast milk.
The homeless in places such as lower Bucks County, PA face challenges, much like the Joads. They need to work together like the characters in the Grapes of Wrath, and care for one another.
As a community, we can help the homeless, give them a hand up. Camp Purgatory, in Ontario, California is an example of doing good for the homeless. Unlike Weedpatch Camp in Steinbeck’s novel, which lacked resources, the authorities in Ontario had the wisdom to keep the camp within its carrying capacity by limiting the occupants to local people who have become homeless. It’s a model for an official homeless camp.
If every community would provide a place like Camp Purgatory, the homeless and the rest of the community would be better off. In Bucks County, Gimmee Shelter was created to this end.