February 5, 2023

In the 1930s large camps of homeless people dotted Australian cities and towns. It was a different scale to our housing problems now, but it raises similar questions
Take a walk along the windy northern headland of Botany Bay, just south-east of Sydney Airport, and you might find evidence of an almost forgotten community.
The coast at La Perouse, near the New South Wales Golf Club, was the site of Happy Valley, a shanty town that was the last resort for more than 300 people at the height of the Great Depression. It was a place littered with huts and tents made of whatever people could lay their hands on — iron sheeting, hessian bags coated in limewash, scavenged wood. Families took up a patch of sand between the bush and other shacks, and often stayed for years.
Before it was dismantled in 1939 and the residents moved on, Happy Valley was one of the biggest communities of homeless people during the Depression. There was a donated marquee for dances and an oval for sport. Close relationships were reportedly formed with residents of the nearby Aboriginal mission. Children in hand-sewn clothes played in the tight lanes between huts. Food was scrounged one way or another.
This was life for thousands of Australians during the worst economic crisis in our history. I remember hearing stories of the Great Depression growing up. My pop was one of 13 children. He had to catch rabbits near his home in inner-city Perth to help feed the family. Many others had it as bad or worse.
Unemployment peaked at around 30% in 1932, forcing many people onto the streets or into temporary camps like the one at La Perouse. These camps, many of them improvised “tin towns” and “bag towns” named after the materials used for roofing and walls, sprang up in city parks, near rivers and floodplains, and on the edges of towns. If you’ve ever been in the beautiful gardens near the centres of our cities, peered at caves lining the coast or hiked through overgrown clearings near country towns, chances are you’ll have been on the site of at least one of these camps.
Unaffordable housing. Struggling to make ends meet. People living in makeshift shelters. Does this sound familiar?
Happy Valley and the other camps of the Depression bear more than a passing resemblance to recent reports of more and more people being forced out of unaffordable houses or unable to secure a rental in the tight markets around Australia. Many regions are seeing rental vacancy rates lower than 1%. Social housing demand is far higher than supply. And so, families displaced by natural disasters or rents they can’t afford are living in tents, people are going hungry to try to hold onto their homes, and couples are making a bed out of the backseat of a car.

What happens in a society when the gap between rich and poor widens? Who do we blame in a crisis?
The housing crisis of the Depression was more severe, and the people it affected did not have access to the welfare services available today, however inadequate they can be. There may not be enough social housing today, but there is some. We’re not seeing tin towns dotted around our capital cities, and the number of people in desperate circumstances is far lower than in the 1930s. They are different and unique crises, but they raise similar questions.
What happens in a society when the gap between rich and poor widens? How do we treat the displaced who end up in the unused spaces around our cities and towns? Who do we blame in a crisis? Who holds out a hand, and who raises a fist?
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In short, before World War II came to bind the nation in a common cause, it led to widespread unrest. In 1932, tensions over unemployed men camping in the Cairns showgrounds boiled over into a battle between the itinerant men and locals that left around 80 people injured, many seriously. The streets of Brunswick, Newtown, Port Adelaide, Fremantle and many more neighbourhoods became the front lines in fights between evicted tenants, their supporters and the authorities. It was not unusual to see localised rioting when a family was pushed out of their home, their possessions piled around them in the street. In 1931, the windows of almost every estate agent’s office in Richmond and Burnley were smashed. In Bankstown the same year, protestors occupied a house set for eviction and used barbed wire to try to hold off the police before a fight involving stones and bricks and bullets.
Hostility and violence were by no means the only experiences. While researching the Depression era, I found many examples of people cooperating and more than a few fundraising ventures. But despite efforts to make the best of it, the camps were places of hardship and disease. Improvised toilets were often out in the open, residents cooked food in all weather, and infections spread easily in the pre-penicillin era. These were the outcomes of poor planning and unfair wealth distribution.
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In the decades after the Depression, successive governments introduced or increased access to measures such as social housing, unemployment benefits and higher education. But recent governments have allowed most of these measures to slide back into inadequacy.
Communities of people unable to access real housing are, tragically, a feature of many parts of the world. But they’ve recently become more prominent in many wealthy countries. Large-scale homeless camps have appeared in San Francisco in recent years. A city known for its tech billionaires is also becoming known for its tent cities. These settlements bring to mind the camps of America in the 1930s — the Hoovervilles that sprung up in places like New York’s Central Park, named after the president many blamed for the crisis.
There are, obviously, many differences between then and now. For one, the people living in tents and sleeping in cars in 2022 often have jobs. In the 1930s, there was a deep recession and high unemployment. Now, there’s rising inflation, stagnant wages and scarce housing. Then, like now, government interventions failed to keep pace with the crisis, and it was left to community and benevolent organisations to pick up the pieces. It’s a matter of details and scale.
We’ve learned some lessons since the Great Depression. In 2020, JobKeeper kept people out of dole queues and eviction moratoriums helped renters stay in their homes, but we have not seen the broad-scale reforms of the type that made post-Depression Australia more fair.
What remains to be seen is how – if our current crisis worsens and more people are forced out of stable accommodation – we will respond.
The question for us now is: What echoes will future generations hear from our time?
Sean Wilson is the author of Gemini Falls (Affirm Press), out 27 September.


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