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#TBT – Hoboes, bums, tramps: How our terminology of homelessness has changed

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Resentment and fear of the homeless is nothing new. Vagrancy was criminalized in England four centuries before the American Revolution; in 1547, England began branding those arrested for vagrancy with a “V” for “vagabond”. Those arrested a second time could be executed.

Attitudes have shifted over time, as has terminology. While “bum” is a derogatory term for someone without a fixed residence and regular employment, terms like “hobo” and “tramp” conjure up nostalgia that belies the difficulty in their wandering lifestyles.

Copied from the Hobo Times' Hobo Travel Guide by Bobb Hopkins

Copied from the Hobo Times’ Hobo Travel Guide by Bobb Hopkins

“Hoboes” emerged in the U.S. after the Civil War, when many men were out of work and their families displaced. The term emerged in the American West around 1890, though its origins are hazy. Some say it was an abbreviation of “homeward bound” or “homeless boy”; author Bill Bryson wrote in his 1998 book “Made in America” that it may have come from “Ho, beau!”, a railroad greeting.

“Tramps” also came out of the Civil War era, with the term, originally from England referring to “tramping about”, becoming Americanized as a term for a long war march. While the term came into use around the same time as “hobo”, they means different things. Depression-era writer H. L. Mencken wrote, “Tramps and hobos are commonly lumped together, but see themselves as sharply differentiated. A hobo or bo is simply a migratory laborer; he may take some longish holidays, but sooner or later he returns to work. A tramp never works if it can be avoided; he simply travels.”

After their post-Civil War emergence, hoboes and tramps became prominent again during the Great Depression. While we may today think of a hobo as a laid-back free spirit riding the rails with a bindle for a pillow, the mass migration of these laborers was born of destitution and desperation, akin to the life of the Joads portrayed in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”.

In a 2003 interview, Todd DePastino, author of “Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America”, said, “One famous quip had it that the hobo works and wanders, the tramp drinks and wanders, and the bum just drinks. More accurately the tramp, the hobo, and the bum represent three historical stages of American homelessness. … Hoboes were by and large more organized, militant, independent, and political than [tramps]. The widespread use of the word ‘bum’ after World War II signals the end of this colorful subculture of transient labor.”

The terms “homeless” and “homelessness” came into lexicon in the 1970’s and 1980’s, when modern homelessness began to appear. Terminology used to denote persons living outdoors or in inadequate or inappropriate dwellings continues to evolve, as many in the service sector now choose to say “people experiencing homelessness” or “persons with lived experience.” Whatever the terminology, no one should have to experience homelessness, especially in a country as wealthy as the United States.

hobo poem and other books

**Special thanks to Michael Stoops for helping us to remember our history**

Standing in Solidarity with the Homeless and the Poor People’s Campaign

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Dear Friends,

Megan and Annie at May 14 Poor People's Campaign Rally by @Fightfor15

Megan and Annie at May 14 Poor People’s Campaign Rally by @Fightfor15

Today, Monday June 11, 2018, NCH Director Megan Hustings and Public Education Coordinator Steve Thomas will participate in nonviolent direct action with the Poor People’s Campaign. We plan to risk arrest in solidarity with the thousands of our homeless neighbors who are arrested and fined every day for carrying out life-sustaining activities in public spaces.

We can no longer accept the false narratives that allow for systemic racism to cause such deep inequality and economic injustice in our communities. Co-chairs Rev. Dr. William J. Barber and the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, of the Poor People’s Campaign tell us that to change the narrative, we must change the narrator. NCH has, since its inception, stood to raise the voices of, and take our direction from, the community of people who experience homelessness – those who are most affected by economic injustice.

We envision a world where everyone has a safe, decent, accessible and affordable home. NCH affirms that we can and must end and prevent homelessness. We believe in the dignity of all people; and in housing, healthy food, quality health care, education and livable incomes as basic human rights. We believe that it is morally, ethically, and legally wrong to discriminate against and criminalize people struggling to meet their basic needs. We affirm that public policy makers and elected officials at all levels must be held accountable to end the systemic and structural causes of homelessness, and that structural racism and discrimination are root causes of homelessness and violates human dignity.

This is the 5th week of 40 Days of nonviolent resistance through the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival, focusing on the theme that Everybody’s Got the Right To Live: Education, Living Wages, Jobs, Income, Housing. We call on you, our supporters and partners, to stand with us in challenging the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and the nation’s distorted morality.

Over the past two years, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival has reached out to communities in more than 30 states across this nation. We have met with tens of thousands of people, witnessing the strength of their moral courage in trying times. We have gathered testimonies from hundreds of poor people and we have chronicled their demands for a better society. The following moral agenda is drawn from this deep engagement and commitment to these struggles of the poor and dispossessed. It is also grounded in an empirical assessment of how we have come to this point today. The Souls of Poor Folk: Auditing America report reveals how the evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, and the war economy and militarism are persistent, pervasive, and perpetuated by a distorted moral narrative that must be challenged.

We must stop the attention violence that refuses to see these injustices and acknowledge the human and economic costs of inequality. We believe that when decent people see the faces and facts that the Souls of Poor Folk Audit presents, they will be moved deeply in their conscience to change things. When confronted with the undeniable truth of unconscionable cruelty to our fellow human beings, we must join the ranks of those who are determined not to rest until justice and equality are a reality for all.”

Please visit https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org to read the full The Souls of Poor Folk report: Auditing America 50 Years After the Poor People’s Campaign Challenged Racism, Poverty, the War Economy/Militarism and Our National Morality, as well as the campaign’s principles, and demands.

#TBT – History of Homelessness 1929-1980

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Throughout our country’s history, there have been people who suffered from homelessness – but there has not always been the same chronic and extensive homelessness we now face. Over the years homeless individuals have been referred to by a variety of different names. During the Revolutionary War homeless individuals were referred to the “itinerate poor,” a result of a society in need of transient agricultural workers, while around the Great Depression words like “tramp” or “bum” came into use.
Timeline of events 1929-1945Timeline of events 1945-1970

Prior to the 1970s homelessness rose and fell with the economic state of the country. Starting in the 1970s policy’s shifted and a sharp and permeant rise in homelessness occurred. Previously, when there was a downturn in the economy the number of the homeless would increase, but this would be fixed when the economy returned to normal. The largest number of homeless up until that point occurred during the Great Depression, but with the help of the New Deal policies homelessness returned to its previous level.

1970s housing policyStarted in the 1970s, however, a trend of chronic homelessness began to present itself as well as different types of individuals suffering from homelessness—women, families, blue

“Anti-poverty” efforts lead to homeless site dismantlement plans and the destruction of single-room occupancy facilities in urban downtowns. Churches begin to take on the burden of creating shelters, and local coalitions develop. Bank deregulation and the start of the farm crisis widen the gap between rich and poor.

Additionally, mental health consumers began to be deinstitutionalized without providing adequate housing and health care resources for community reintegration. As a result, many people with mental illnesses started to end up homeless or in jail.

Fast forward nearly 40 years and policy has continued to ensure economic inequality at staggering levels. Keep a look out next week for a closer look at the history of homelessness in the U.S. after 1980.

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