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Posts Tagged ‘History’

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

Written by admin on . Posted in Blog

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**

#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.

#TBT – Street Newspapers

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If you live in, or have ever been to, a city like Chicago, or Washington, DC, San Francisco, Nashville or Seattle, you have probably seen a vendor selling a paper that reports on issues of poverty and homelessness. This is a “Street Newspaper,” and there are over 40 of these in print in North America, and over 100 published in 34 countries around the world.

photo credit Do Haeng Michael Kitchen

We’ve shared before about the activism of the 1980’s and 90’s, when our current era of homelessness was just starting to rear its ugly head. People who were becoming homeless were intimately involved in advocacy and services to help folks who were unhoused. By the late 1980’s, homeless advocates realized there was a need for educating the larger public about the issues surrounding homelessness. Street News, first published in NYC in 1989, is credited with being the first street newspaper focused on homeless issues, followed closely by Street Sheet, still published by the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco.

Inspired by Street News, the Big Issue was launched as a “social business” in 1991 in the UK, inspiring a further wave of street newspapers across Europe. The International Network of Street Papers (INSP) was created in 1994 and our own beloved Michael Stoops helped to start the North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA) in 1996. The two networks worked collaboratively until 2013, when INSP became the single global network for street papers on all six continents.

Recent numbers from the INSP Network

Street papers in the US have, for the most part, intended to act as both an advocacy tool and a primary way for people who have been homeless to be active leaders in that advocacy. Today, most papers are run, written, and sold by homeless folks. Many papers offer case management assistance, training and networking opportunities to homeless folks in their communities.

The National Coalition for the Homeless has long supported the advocacy and empowerment outlet that street newspapers have provided. Street papers across the world continue to break down barriers between housed and unhoused people, creating employment opportunities to poor people worldwide.

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