Nothing New About Homelessness
Long before it became a seemingly permanent fixture of the urban landscape, and recognized as a bona fide social phenomenon, widespread homelessness was still experienced in U.S. cities in times of economic crisis. One of these periods was during the years preceding World War I, when persistent unemployment reached alarming proportions. Seattle, already facing annual seasonal joblessness among itinerant workers employed in the extractive industries of its hinterland, was particularly hard hit. Local newspapers were replete with stories about temporary encampments on Alki Beach, women sleeping under bridges, and unemployed men raiding the local Salvation Army in search of warm winter clothing.
One of the most innovative responses to the homelessness of this era was an institution known as the Hotel de Gink, a self-managed lodging house which in its heyday (1913-1915) sheltered and helped provide employment for as many as 1,500 homeless men at a time. Located first in the old Providence Hospital at 5th Avenue and Madison Street (the present-day site of Seattle’s federal courthouse), and later in a large building near the corner of Rainier and Dearborn Avenues, the Hotel de Gink was a bustling endeavor, lively and as novel as its name implies.
King of the Hoboes
“Gink” was hobo slang meaning “guy” or “fellow.” The hobo history Knights of the Road recognizes the term as an appellation for fellow hoboes and defines it as a “poor unfortunate." The hotels were the brainchild of Jeff Davis, one of many to be proclaimed “King of the Hoboes." who organized the International Itinerant Workers (IIW), a short-lived labor union more popularly known as the “Hoboes of America." The IIW was a self-consciously patriotic response to the more politically radical Wobblies, or IWW – Industrial Workers of the World.
Davis arrived in Seattle during the autumn of 1913, to organize IIW Local No. 22, challenge local vagrancy laws, and attend the 34th annual conference of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Armed with a $55 grant from Seattle’s labor daily, the Union Record, to pay the first month’s rent, Davis also established the first of what was to become a string of Hotels de Gink around the country. Others were started by Davis in Cincinnati and New York, and the name became popular, attaching to charitable lodging houses in Tacoma, Portland, Denver, Boston, and Ogden, Utah; the name was even used for lodging houses adjacent to U.S. military bases in far-off lands and was the title of a short animated film produced in 1915. Davis left Seattle after four months, having made a name for himself here, and winning the praise of civic leaders.
Following Davis’ departure, management of the Hotel de Gink in Seattle fell to one of his lieutenants, Henry “Baldy” Pauly, chairman of IIW Local 22. Pauly, a onetime itinerant worker himself (a logger by trade), had been in Seattle for a half dozen years, taking time to travel to Lewiston, Montana, to organize itinerant workers there. Upon returning to Seattle, he helped Davis start up the Hotel de Gink and assumed leadership after Davis’ departure. Pauly, too, was widely praised by civic leaders, not only for his competent management of the hotel, but also for his ingenuity in organizing the Ginks into a viable work force. The city’s Municipal League unanimously adopted a motion thanking Pauly for his “splendid work in organizing the unemployed” (Seattle P-I, April 14, 1915) and one local publication lauded him as “a genuine captain of industry” (Welfare, August 1914).
Residents of the Hotel de Gink were required to work for no pay at the institution at least two days per week, on one of the various work squads organized for the upkeep of the building: the Kitchen Crew, Wood Crew, Scrubbing Crew, Blanket Crew (the blankets were steam cleaned on site), and a Soliciting Squad armed with a formal letter asking for donations to the hotel. Those who declined to work were summarily shown the door. Once they began serving their work shifts, the residents earned meal tickets to use throughout the week (those without tickets received two lesser meals per day). For each two-day’s work, the residents earned a ticket good for 21 meals.
The overall numbers are staggering: in its second winter of operation, the hotel served 381,975 meals and provided 159,935 beds! (Seattle P-I, September 26, 1915). Here’s an example of a menu, from 18 February 1914:
Breakfast for the non-employees: rolled oats, bread and coffee: 668 served
Breakfast for the employees: pork chops, potatoes, rolled oats, bread and coffee: 537 served
Lunch for employees only: pigs head, cabbage, potatoes, bread and tea: 495 served:
Dinner for non-employees: maccaroni (sic), bread and tea: 773 served
Dinner for employees: pork and dressing, brown gravy, potatoes, apples, bread and tea: 460 served
Law of the Jungle
Elements of self management were introduced, from the work crews (which elected their own captains) to the enforcement of rules through what the Ginks called “Jungle Cops” and their own “Jungle Court” (the crew chiefs elected a police chief, known as the “Jungle Bull”). A sampling of cases from one night in December 1913 (as reported in The Seattle Sun, December 24, 1913):
“Hear ye! Hear ye! The jungle court is now in session.”
The first case was that of 232, charged with spitting on the floor. The prisoner plead (sic) guilty, and declared his wad of tobacco had just fallen by mistake. The cop suggested leniency, and Judge (Skinney) O’Mara sentenced him to keeping the cuspidors clean for one day.
No. 764 was a minor, 19 years of age, who had arrived in the course of the day, dirty, haggard and in rags … His sentence was a soft mattress and three square meals a day, for three days. In the meantime it is hoped to find a permanent place for him to live and make his way.
No. 605, charged with playing cards in the People’s Café (a local bar, from which the Gink’s residents were barred), was found guilty and directed to clean all the windows of the building. Then, for disrespect, he had a week’s work tacked on to his sentence …
It looked as if the calendar were clear for the night, when the industry of the cops in the hall rounded up Albert A. Pillar, chairman of the housing committee for the unemployed, who was caught smoking in court. Pillar, when haled before the judge, attempted to bribe His Honor with a cigar, but was nonplused to find that His Honor had sworn off smoking. Pillar was given the first cash fine assessed by the court, paying $1 into the Christmas Kiddie fund."
The “housing committee of the unemployed” may be a reference to the local business leaders who formed the Unemployed Citizen’s League, and assisted Pauly in establishing a land-clearing business. Cash advances from the City Council which helped establish the hotel were repaid through public-works projects, mostly clearing city land. Pauly disparaged the idea of charity, calling it “dope.”
“We don’t ask for and don’t want charity. We work for everything we get” (Seattle Municipal News January 24, 1914).
“Any man doing all he really can to work or obtain employment … can at least hold his self respect and keep above the class of men known as common tramps” (Seattle P-I, February 7, 1915).
By the spring of 1914, when the lease ran out with the Sisters of Providence (who were preparing to demolish the old Providence Hospital building), the Ginks had acquired a stump puller and sufficient equipment to embark on their own business. Pauly and a small crew relocated to a building on 8th Avenue for the summer, completing more land-clearing contracts, before reopening the hotel again the following winter, when the weather grew too inclement for maintaining outdoor work camps.
Public Support Cools
They moved into a large building near the corner of Rainier and Dearborn, changing the name to the Hotel Liberty (perhaps to avoid negative associations with hobo life). Again, the group gained widespread civic support, and began to solicit land-clearing projects, some for the City of Seattle. This time, however, many of the paying projects fell through, and by April funds were short.
Attempts to keep the hotel open failed, and the summer dissolved into a series of competing recriminations, culminating in heated words between Pauly and Seattle Mayor Hiram Gill (1866-1919), at the State Conference of Charities and Correction in Everett. The June 12, 1915, edition of the Seattle Union Record documented the exchange (along with intimations suggesting the erosion of public support), beginning with Gill’s assertion that the men of the Hotel Liberty:
“...Are not decent citizens but are bums, hoboes, tramps, and undesirables … we do not owe these bums and tramps a living at the expense of decent citizens … I want it understood that these bums have got to work for nothing. These bums must never be paid a dollar in money. They must not be put in competition with decent citizens. Most of them are victims of their own improvidence or their own brutish drinking habits and therefore I say they shall not have a cent of money.”
And then one of the clergy, of whom there were a number present, uttered a loud and fervent “AMEN!” The speakers remarks were greeted with much applause. In closing the mayor stated that he would not tolerate any “mollycoddling of tramps and bums.”
Pauly responded to this attack with a reasoned analysis of the sources of the recent unemployment (“The real cause of unemployment is the rapid evolution of labor saving machinery …”) and continued with this impassioned appeal:
“I want to say to you people that we, of the Hotel Liberty, are not bums and tramps! We are men just as good as the best of you here. It has been stated by another speaker that we are not decent citizens and should not be paid a dollar in money for our labor. We have paid the city of Seattle every dollar; we have not had a cent of your charity; we have earned our way … Why, these ‘bums,’ these ‘hoboes,’ these ‘no good workers’ are the men who have built the west. You folks couldn’t live if it wasn’t for them. The farmers could not harvest their crops if the itinerant worker did not travel on the brake beams to come and do it for them.”
The Union Record report ends with the observation that Pauly’s response “drew little applause at the conclusion." Pauly faded from the historical record soon after this. The hotel failed to open again the following winter, homeless men returned to the Christian missions, and unemployment diminished as Seattle became the center of a shipbuilding boom after the outbreak of World War I. Pauly was listed in the Seattle City Directory one more year (1916), his trade identified as “logger,” before falling into obscurity.
Lessons for Today
The story of the Hotel de Gink is instructive on several counts, first and foremost for its demonstration of the existence of homelessness in an earlier era, a fact often glossed over (or even denied) in contemporary accounts, which view homelessness as a recent phenomenon, the product of social forces of the latter half of the twentieth century (such as the gentrification of low-income neighborhoods, deinstitutionalization of mental patients, and the emergence of cheap and debilitating illegal drugs). The story of the Ginks illustrates homelessness resulting from an absence of jobs and affordable housing, what many advocates argue is still the main cause of homelessness.
When economic conditions left many without homes, the Ginks responded by managing their own form of shelter, much like the present-day self-managed shelters and Tent City of Seattle’s SHARE/WHEEL. Reminiscent of current attitudes toward homelessness, the early praise received by the Hotel de Gink was eventually overwhelmed by the criticisms of those who might prefer the problem swept under the rug. Jeff Davis led the fight against vagrancy laws which were used to harass the out-of-work homeless. These laws, finally declared unconstitutional in the 1960s, have in some ways been resurrected in the 1990s with passage of Seattle's “Civility Laws” (better known as “Sidran Laws,” after then Seattle City Attorney Mark Sidran).
The chronic homelessness of today may differ from what existed in the past, but the Hotel de Gink is a helpful reminder that in some ways, what goes around comes around.