Homelessness Through History
By: Scott Taylor

          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, Ole).

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 (Nomad’s, Ole).

          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 today (National).


In Conclusion

          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.


“Arabs.”  Microsoft Encarta.  ver. 8.29  CD-ROM.  Redmond: Microsoft, 1998.


Burnett, Richard D.  “The Reckless Hobo.”  Online.  Internet.  16 April 2000  <http://www.fortunecity.com/tinpan/parton/2/recklhob.html>.


Commins, Stephen K.  “Somalia.”  1999 World Book Encyclopedia.  CD-ROM.  San Diego: World Book, 1999.


DeLorenzo, Fran.  “Fran’s Hobo Page.”  Online.  Internet.  16 April 2000   <http://www.worldpath.net/~minstrel/index.html>.


DeLorenzo, Fran.  “The Hoboes.”  Online.  Internet.  16 April 2000  <http://www.mscgroup.com/hobo/Hoboes.htm>.


“Hoboes, Men & Women Served In The Armed Forces During WWII.”  Hobo Jungle.  Online.  Internet.  16 April 2000  <http://www.2ndarmoredhellonwheels.com/hobo-jungle.html>.


Katz, Michael B.  “Boston’s Wayward Children: Social Services for Homeless Children, 1830-1930.”  Journal of Urban History  v24 n2 (January 1998):  244-256.


National Hobo Association.  Online.  Internet.  16 April 2000  <http://www.hobo.org>.


“Nomad’s Life Is Hard.”  The Economist.  7 August 1999:  35.


Ole, Kamoriongo and Jonathan Ololoso.  “The Circle Closes In On The Nomads.”  Parabola  v24 n1 (Spring 1999): 86-90.


Stanley Brothers.  “Man of Constant Sorrow.”  Online.  Internet.  16 April 2000  <http://members.xoom.com/_XMCM/elstongunn/sorrow.htm>.


Wright, James D.  “Homelessness.”  Microsoft Encarta.  ver. 8.29  CD-ROM.  Redmond: Microsoft, 1998.