Homelessness has been around for many years, although the current
views on the homeless are very different than the views society
has had on them in the past. In years gone by, homelessness
has been considered a normal, acceptable way of life.
However, the lives of the homeless in the past were rather different
than the lives of the homeless in our society today.
People have been homeless throughout history, however the face
of the homeless has changed. Nomads are a group of homeless
people generally found in Northern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula;
while hoboes, tramps, and bums are homeless people generally
found in the United States. Society’s opinion of the homeless
has changed over the years, changing how people must survive.
According to the Encarta Encyclopedia, up until the last few
decades, nomadic tribes roamed large desert areas in Northern
Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. One of the more established,
and controlling tribes were the Bedouins. This particular
group controlled many of the caravan routes in the area.
These people raised camels, sheep, and goats as a source of
livelihood. In their time period, it would have been common
to be nomadic. Children would be raised in tents and huts
and grow up never knowing one area as home (“Arabs”).
Hoboes, Tramps, and Bums
During the depression era, many men became what were known as
“hoboes,” traveling the country in search of work. On
Fran DeLorenzo’s web page, entitled “The Hoboes,” he points
out that the term “hoboes” originated from “hoe boys,” or migrant
farm workers who used hoes to weed out fields. During
the mid 1800’s these workers would travel out west in search
of work and stop at the farms where help was needed. Later,
the term was shortened to “hoeboys,” and then to “hoboes”.
Later, as rail travel was a primary means of travel, hoboes
would catch freight trains to travel out west (DeLorenzo).
During this time period, being homeless was not a dishonor such
as it is often thought of in today’s time period. As they
traveled the country, people would help them by giving them
food in exchange for small jobs. Although many hoboes
were forced to travel in order to find work, many enjoyed the
lifestyle. Many very well known and successful people
were once hoboes, traveling across the United States.
According to DeLorenzo and the website known as the Hobo Jungle,
these included Winthrop Rockefeller, Clark Gable, and Supreme
Court Justice William O. Douglas. Famous authors Carl
Sandburg and Jack London both lived on the road hopping trains
for a while (DeLorenzo, Hobo Jungle).
Tales of the lives of hoboes have been
told through songs. Country musician Richard D. Burnett’s
The Reckless Hobo is about a “reckless, rambling hobo.”
“Don’t think because I’m a railroad boy, that I’m not all right”
seeks to dispel the myth that hoboes were indecent, second-class
citizens. The Reckless Hobo was copyrighted in 1913 (Burnett).
The bluegrass group of the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain
Boys recorded Man of Constant Sorrow, another song that Richard
D. Burnett performed. Man of Constant Sorrow tells the
tale of a man roaming the country for six years on trains.
This song was adapted and recorded more recently by Bob Dylan.
In Dylan’s version, the hobo states, “I’m bound to ride that
mornin’ railroad, perhaps I’ll die on that train” (Stanley).
On DeLorenzo’s web page, he states “hoboes
were not tramps.” Hoboes worked to buy the goods, services,
and food they needed to survive. On the other hand, they
did not believe in holding permanent jobs in one place.
Tramps also do not have permanent homes. Tramps generally
travel by train also, but do not seek work like hoboes do (DeLorenzo).
Michael Katz states in the Journal of Urban History, that in
America unemployed men always have ranked high among the undeserving
poor, demonized as tramps, bums, or the underclass.” Throughout
history, these men have been seen as the most undeserving of
the homeless. Katz goes on to state that one of the reasons
many men have been considered as bums is that social programs,
such as welfare, were primarily designed to help women.
Programs have started in many cities throughout the years to
assist young unmarried mothers, while there are few programs
to assist young men in finding work (Katz).
In order to reduce the number of hoboes, tramps, and bums in
the United States, President Roosevelt established the Civilian
Conservation Corps in 1933. This was one of the few programs
that allowed young, unmarried men to have a steady job, housing,
and food. This program was very beneficial to the country,
as it not only helped reduce the number of homeless people,
but it also helped complete many projects such as roads, parks,
and providing telephone lines throughout the country.
The Civilian Conservation Corps lasted through 1942. According
to the Encarta Encyclopedia, the program was discontinued because
of the United States involvement in World War II.
Homelessness In Today’s Society
According to Stephen Commin’s, an author for World Book Encyclopedia,
even today there are still nomadic tribes in many countries.
In countries such as Sudan, the Somali Republic (the area once
known as Somalia), and Djibouti poverty has a firm grasp on
the tribes, but they continue their nomadic way of life (“Arabs”,
Commins). An August 1999 issue of The Economist states
that over half of the population of the Somali Republic is still
nomadic today (Nomad’s).
Kamoriongo Ole writes in the spring 1999
edition of Parabola that the “people are encouraged by the government
to stay in one place.” The governments in these countries
offer them land set aside for their tribe, however due to weather
conditions, the nomads still prefer to roam. Ole continues
to explain how pastoral nomads resist settling in one area because
of extreme weather conditions, such as droughts or flooding,
which force them to move their people and herds in order to
survive. It is becoming more difficult for the tribes
to move around and find good grazing areas for their herds (Arabs,
Even though they have land set aside for
them, most clans allow other friendly tribes to use and travel
through their areas. In the past the nomads were allowed
to settle temporarily in any place they chose. Ole claims
that in today’s world, this is no longer possible. Because
of their governments allocating land to them, the tribes face
new problems. Some tribes are allocated good areas, while
others are allocated dry areas; which are difficult to inhabit
The homeless rate has been steadily increasing in the United
States since the early 1980’s. The economy and government
funding cuts are partially to blame for the increases.
Many people who once never thought of becoming homeless have
found themselves on the streets. Bad investments and the
fluctuations of the stock market have left people who once were
once affluent penniless.
Of the Americans below the poverty line
today, half are in danger of becoming homeless. It is
difficult to count the number of homeless in America because
of their transient nature, but an effort was made in the 1990
census. From the 1990 census, it is estimated that there
are around 700,000 people homeless (Wright).
The National Hobo Association, a group of hoboes past and present,
assures readers of its web page that hoboes still exist and
travel throughout the United States. There are far fewer
hoboes than there were earlier in the century. Most travel
via trains, however some travel in trucks and other vehicles
The history of the homeless is a very vast topic. Homelessness
can be traced to all corners of the earth, throughout the history
of civilization. As society’s opinions and view on the
homeless change, the people who are homeless must adapt and
change in order to survive. While there is no simple solution
to the problem today, there are efforts being made to reduce
the number of people on the streets in the United States and
throughout the world.