City's poor lived in shantytown until 1937

News-Sentinel photo by Ellie Bogue

Louis Bonsib painted this scene of Fort Wayne's shantytown in 1932. The site is now part of Headwaters Park.
By Jennifer L. Boen of The News-Sentinel

Today's Headwaters Park in Fort Wayne was yesterday's shantytown.

Some people – both then and now – have tried to ignore the fact that Fort Wayne did have Depression-era slums, said Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne history professor Clifford Scott.

"Some people deny that it ever existed," saying Fort Wayne was able to adequately feed and house its poor during the Great Depression, Scott said.

But newspaper stories, photos and other records confirm that the city's poor and homeless lived in makeshift wooden sheds – or even their cars – in the St. Marys River flats, just north and a little west of where the county jail sits now.

In the 1920s, people had been living well. More than 75 percent of the city's adult residents were homeowners. Housing construction was booming.

But after the stock market crashed, things that were plentiful a decade earlier – food, clothing, fuel – became scarce.

Food was cheap – bread for a nickel, three pounds of hamburger for a dime and a dozen eggs for a quarter. But many people could not afford even the basics. They found sustenance in bread and soup lines, and home became wherever they could find shelter from the cold or rain.

Even so, Fort Wayne's diversified industries created a healthier economic climate than many other cities. That drew hundreds of people to the city, most arriving by rail from other states.

"I remember there were a lot of transients," said Dorothy Heiny, 82, whose family home on Forest Park Boulevard sat near the end of the line of a passenger train.

Hungry, destitute people showed up looking for food.

"My mother would tell them to go around to the back of the house," Heiny said. "She never let them in. She would give out food to strangers." But once you were targeted as a place for giveaways, Heiny added, the beggars would mark your house so they could find it again.

Later on, when the Works Progress Administration created government-funded jobs, some people could afford to rent an apartment or home.

Nevertheless, Shantytown remained home to a handful of people as late as August 1937. But with no running water, the city became increasingly concerned about the settlement's poor sanitary conditions.

"Notices from the State Board of Health giving the residents of the squatters community 30 days to comply with an evacuation order were posted late Monday, and the Shantytowners are all a-twit over the situation," The News-Sentinel reported on Aug. 18.

Two months later, the last of the Shantytown dwellers – 20 or so – relocated to an area just west of the Parnell Avenue bridge. Members of that neighborhood registered a vigorous protest, but no laws had been broken, and local officials could do nothing about the small settlement.

Mayor Harry Baals called for help from the Community Chest – the city's response of organized relief efforts – and the last of the shanty dwellers eventually were helped into suitable housing.

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