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Pima County has long history of helping those in need

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The way we were

Pima County has long history of helping those in need

  • Gene Autry visits a young patient at Comstock Hospital in the early 1940s, which served the indigent of Pima County.
    Gene Autry visits a young patient at Comstock Hospital in the early 1940s, which served the indigent of Pima County.

Pima County has provided for the less fortunate in one way or another since its earliest days, more often than not in partnership with community groups. Local government has, at various times, done everything from contracting with organizations to provide relief or services, in-kind help in the form of equipment and labor for ongoing efforts, or even, at least in the territorial period, appropriations to specific indigent individuals and families.

This generosity was sorely tested in the earliest years of the Great Depression, when the resources of both local government and private charity fell under unprecedented strain. The crisis brought out both the worst and the best in our community.

Though the "Black Tuesday" stock market crash of 1929 is the usual marker of the beginning of the Depression, historians are usually quick to point out that there had long been signs that the nation's economy was on shaky ground, and some parts of the country had already been in decline for years. Pima County seemed a notable exception. Buoyed by inflated copper and cotton prices, as well as by a thriving tourist industry and unprecedented real-estate development, the local economy appeared so strong that the Arizona Daily Star ridiculed the notion of a depression as late as February 1930.

Nonetheless, Pima County was not insulated from the nationwide panic, and this became obvious when copper and cotton prices collapsed that summer, and the local ranks of the needy were swelled not only by newly unemployed residents, but also desperate newcomers arriving from other states.

The infrastructure was already in place for a unified response. Organized Charities formed in 1915, initially to coordinate efforts to support Comstock Hospital, which served the indigent and was located in a ramshackle community known as "Tentville" on the northern edge of Tucson. As its name implied, O.C. was a coalition which sought to combine the resources of churches, local charities, mutual-aid societies and labor unions for the common good. They quickly outgrew their original mission and sought to promote the general welfare of the community, employing a full-time executive staff as well as social workers to address the "underlying causes of poverty" such as alcoholism and gambling. By 1928, the Pima County Board of Supervisors was coordinating its indigent relief efforts through the O.C.

This arrangement was made more formal through the county's establishment of an Emergency Relief Board and a Welfare Board in 1931 and 1933, but this was strictly a legal formality. These boards were generally composed of the same people. Local businessman Charles Edgar Goyette — who chaired the O.C. — would, for example, coordinate with best-selling author Harold Bell Wright, who chaired the E.R.B. Wright was also on the board of the O.C. and Goyette served on the E.R.B.

This incestuous arrangement did not always run smoothly. An argument over who should speak for local relief efforts led to a public disagreement between Goyette and local businesswoman and philanthropist Isabella Greenway, vice-chair of the E.R.B. and an O.C. board member. This dispute came to an end when she was elected to Congress in a special election in October 1933.

An example of one of the relief efforts that occurred under this arrangement happened in March 1931, when the O.C. distributed $3,019.15 worth of food to 2,865 people, an endeavor that involved coordination with schools and businesses. Able-bodied men were required to work in exchange for aid, and the county engineer employed them as day labor on road projects that were not budgeted for, so as not to "put anyone out of a job."

This generosity had its limits, however. As early as 1931, officials expressed concern about transients arriving from out of state, and even the O.C. pledged to "resist an army of hoboes and tubercular patients," who, it was believed, were coming strictly to take advantage of local charity. The fact that this traffic seemed to increase when California passed a law requiring a three-year residence to be eligible for relief appeared to confirm this. The Board of Supervisors eventually passed an ordinance mirroring the California law, but for the time being, the O.C. and the county slowly found themselves overwhelmed.

The O.C. sought to limit its expenses by more narrowly defining what constituted a Tucsonan. In 1933, they discussed a proposal to allocate $7,000 to encourage Mexican immigrants to return to their home country, which proved unworkable. An even stranger scheme called for moving the Yaqui village, then north of Tucson, to Redington. Yaqui labor could be used to make long-needed improvements to the road through the pass, and presumably, relocating the community would place the Yoeme outside of local responsibility. Substantial local sympathy for the Yaquis, refugees from violence in Sonora who had been well-established in the Tucson area for decades, was likely the reason why the proposal, though seriously considered, went nowhere.

While this sentiment was driven largely by provincialism, prejudice and outright bigotry, the concern about limited local resources was legitimate. Officials argued that Pima County residents were being asked to shoulder responsibility for what was a national problem, and there was no sign that the state or federal government would step in to help anytime soon.

This changed as the "New Deal" was instituted by newly inaugurated President Franklin Roosevelt. In addition to a number of sweeping programs to address the national crisis, there was a reorganization of state and local relief efforts. Under these changes, the Emergency Relief Board and Welfare Board were now more accountable and far better resourced than before. Local charities still had a role to play, but they would no longer stand alone.

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