Photograph of a hobo taken by Charles C. Pierce, 1861-1946. (Public Domain)
Homelessness emerged as a national issue in the 1870s, when in the years following the Civil War a veritable army of homeless men swept across America. These men came to be known as hobos and slowly took command of downtown districts. Numerous sources including diaries, letters and police reports chronicle the life and experiences of hobos.
Hobos in the late 1800s have in many ways morphed into the modern men and women of various backgrounds who have become homeless. Kenneth L. Kusmer in his book entitled, Down and Out, On the Road: The Homeless in American History (Oxford University Press, 2003) references how hobos were known as "wandering poor, sturdy beggars, or just as vagrants.“ He notes they have been a part of the American landscape since those displaced by war began to congregate. Our nation’s growing industrial cities of the 19th century were segregated by class, race, and ethnicity, with skid rows hiding the impoverished from society and allowing them to be considered the "other," undeserving of respect, regard, and social supports.
The hobo army, infamous for hanging around railroad yards, and illegally riding freight trains, haunted America throughout the mid to late 19th century and influenced the creation of welfare state measures. These men called into question the definition of "home" and charted the road to how we view "homelessness" today.
At Christmastime, many folks focus more on our homeless population than any other time of year. It’s worth taking a look at the history of homelessness. You may be surprised by what you learn. Being without a home in the 19th century wasn’t any easier than it is today. And a significant number of today’s homeless population remains veterans who have fought valiantly in our wars.