Articles


Security, Relief, and Social Work


September 1934





Men off the Road

by Gertrude Springer

Photographs by Lewis W. Hine


HE had little time for me, that was plain. As he answered my questions his eyes were on the men across the field.

"There's nothin' 'bout me, ma'am. I'm jes' one of these federal transients. My folks is what's called po' white trash where I comes from. No ma'am, I ain't never worked what you'd call reg'lar,„not for money anyways. Seemed like I might's well get out, so 'bout a yeah back I hit the road. Long's I kep' movin' I got by. Then a fella was comin' to New York, so I come. But say, that's a tough place. Then I heard about this camp and so I went to a place where a lady talked to me and pretty soon she said I could come. My folks? Oh, they don't care. They've got it plenty hard without me. No ma'am, there's nothin' 'bout me. I reckon I better be goin'. A fahmah down yondah give us some tomata plants that's gotta get set out before it rains."

Maybe he was telling the truth about himself, maybe not. It did not matter. What mattered was that this sunbrowned, muscular, young American citizen was no longer adrift in the dim world of the road, the jungle and the flophouse and that he, grimly schooled in irresponsibility, was actually concerned with getting tomato plants set out at the right moment.

Two months before, chiefly because New York was tough, he had drifted into the Transient Bureau, and presently found himself on the way to the camp deep in the hills of Putnam County. He figured that it was probably just a new kind of a jail„he knew all about jails„but he'd take a chance. He could always hit it out again, just go "over the hill,"„any hill.

And so he came to the frame barracks sprawled on the edge of a wood. Darkly suspicious of everything, he heard the director's assurance that this was a place where everybody played fair. He knew that line, and he knew where the catches were. But the place looked good for " three squares" and he might as well try it. That night he found himself hanging over the old piano where a "bar-room professor"„ "Yes'm, I've played my way through every state in the Union and don't know one note from another,"„was pounding out anything anybody asked for. And presently he was swapping tall stories of the road and getting a big laugh for that fast one he and Big Red had pulled on the bulls in Scranton. No one asked him any questions„just took him for granted. The next morning he was assigned to a worksquad. This was probably the catch, but the other fellows said it was OK, so he went on.

That day and the next he got onto things a little, and decided to stay out the week and help the gang finish the job it was on. The next week he stayed because the camp ballteam had a game on. The week after that „well, he just stayed and to his own faint surprise heard himself counseling a newcomer to "give this dump a chance. Take it from me, kid, it beats the road. ' Now he has risen to be a squad leader, has hardened up and gained in weight. He has learned to box and aspires to the camp championship. He has written to his folks and has saved $4.25 from his cash allowance toward some decent clothes for a "front" when he gets a chance at a job. Pretty soon now he is going to brace the camp director and see what he thinks he ought to do next. This dump's all right, but after all a fellow likes to be on his own, and it seems like there ought to be a regular job some place for him. Just look at that muscle!

OF all the forms of depression-born relief none is more experimental or more unpredictable as to outcome than the camps for transients, part of the general program, still less than a year old, by which the Federal Emergency Relief Administration is trying to reroot some hundreds of thousands of people whom the depression drove out of their normal setting and onto the road as a way of life.

Until the FERA came into being no one bothered much about this strange new floating population except to drive it on. Social workers, who knew it at firsthand, warned that a good third of it were families, and that only one in ten of the men were of the familiar hobo persuasion. The rest were just men out of work for whom life in a given place had become intolerable and who had, in the good old American tradition, moved on in the hope of betterment. But once uprooted they were made helpless by our complicated settlement laws. Every community raised defenses against them. They could not even turn back. Chivied in and out of jails and noisome shelters, loaded into trucks and dumped by the hundred across state lines, they had no choice but to keep going. For months, even years, this multitude of destitute homeless had been milling around the country, kicked from pillar to post, living only God knows how.

Yet these men, said the social workers, were just average American citizens of all ages, the older men with good work records, the younger, who had come to working age in the past five years, with no experience in steady work. All were cynical and bewildered. Only in the company of hoboes, criminals and perverts among them, did they find welcome. Every other hand was raised against them. A whole army of chronic dependents, delinquents and criminals was being bred before our eyes.

When the FERA took hold it found endless obstructions and confusions raised by the complicated fabric of residence and settlement laws differing in every state and in communities within states. There were, it seems, three categories of the homeless„resident homeless and state homeless, who, not having wandered out of local or state bounds, still retained certain rights, and interstate homeless, called federal transients for lack of a better term, who had no rights anywhere.

The FERA cut a lot of red tape when it defined a federal transient as a destitute person who has been within the boundaries of a state less than twelve months but had no legal settlement there. For these it assumed financial responsibility. All others must still rely on local and state resources.

In the beginning of the FERA transient program no one knew quite how to take hold and good theories broke down with disconcerting frequency. Trial and error has had to be the rule. As it stands now every state except Montana has some sort of federal transient service in operation with all county relief bureaus designated as transient reference centers where destitute homeless people, without legal status in the community, may apply for assistance. Here occurs the first straining-off process by means of the determination of legal rights. If it appears that a man is a transient by FERA definition he is sent at once to a treatment center of which there were, in mid-summer, 340 scattered through the country in or adjacent to cities or centers of kansportation. From this point on the procedure differs widely in different states but with at least one effort in common„to treat each man as an individual human being, a point of view for which social workers have contended valiantly against loud local contention that "all these bums ought to be behind barbed wire."

At the treatment centers, where, it should be said, there are special routines for transient families and for youth out on a lark, a man has a chance to recover from the buffeting of the road while an effort is made to work out with him a plan for himself in which he will cooperate. Truth does not always prevail of course, and good intentions are evanescent. Most of the treatment centers are in reality city shelters, better now than the old flop-houses, but still with a mass atmosphere not conducive to individual reaction. Yet at this point a good many tangled situations are straightened out. However, no transient is sent "home" at the expense of Uncle Sam until it has been definitely verified that "home" is where he says it is, that it has a place for him, and that his old community offers him a better chance than he has where he is. In short transients are not shipped back willy-nilly to the same conditions that sent them on the road in the first place. And of course there are plenty who have no place they even call home and would not go there if they had.

It was the hope in the beginning that it would be possible to find for each individual situation an individual solution based on personality, background, work-history and so on. But there were too many men who did not fit any pattern, too many dead-end human situations, and not enough social workers with the necessary skill and discrimination. More especially there were not enough jobs available. Many a man who would have done his own adjusting given a steady job at a living wage, is still unadjusted. Thus there has developed in the treatment centers a variety of experimentation in efforts to handle men in groups while building up shattered morale and industrial and social habits to the point of individual stability.

And this is where the transient camps, which is what we have been getting back to all this time, come in.

Among the men crowding the treatment centers were thousands for whom congregate mass shelter under city conditions offered only an urge back to the road. Given community fixations and local ordinances there was small chance of any work for them to do. Every work opportunity was jealously guarded for local folk. '`There aren't enough leaves for our own married men to rake, let alone out-of-town bums." If these particular transients were to be redeemed, socially speaking, it had to be outside the environment of the cities and the mass shelters.

There was a little experience to go on. The Rev. W. E. Paul of Minneapolis had demonstrated that cast-off men may be salvaged by work and steady living and the community profit thereby (see Taking the Work Cure at Medicine Lake, by Morris Lewis, Survey Graphic, January 1934, page 30.) While none of the 200 federal transient camps now in operation over the country follows the Minneapolis pattern exactly they all, to some extent, stem from it. Most of them were pioneer projects set going under conditions that were themselves a test of the stamina of the men.

In New Jersey, for instance, the first camp was set up last November by a gang of six transients under a leader, in an open bathing-pavilion full of last year's dead leaves, with little equipment to start with beyond a heap of picnic tables, a couple of pails and an abandoned milk can. Water had to be carried half a mile. In New York a gang of twelve men broke through the February snow in Bear Mountain Park to a disused shack and with others who came later built from the ground up a convenient, well-planned camp, a permanent useful feature of state property. At a camp site on property owned by the State Department of Mental Hygiene the "pioneer detail" of twelve had to seek shelter from the winter storms in an abandoned railroad station until it could throw up its own barracks. Yet within five months these same men and others like them had completed a water and sewage system adequate to serve the purpose which the state proposes ultimately to make of the property. "Give us time and material," says the director, "and we'll build anything from a three-legged stool to a battleship. We've got the talent, but you mustn't crowd us."

Not all transient men go to the camps, partly because there are not camps enough, but chiefly because they are not as adapted to camp life as it has so far developed. On the whole there is a pretty effective screening-out of unlikely material in the treatment centers. Chronic hoboes, men in bad physical condition from disease or disability, youngsters out for a lark, none of these are counted good camp timber. For them, as for transient families, there are other methods of treatment. The old hoboes do sometimes get to camp, but they do not as a rule stay very long„it is not their kind of a show; they have to give too much for what they get. No man goes to camp without a frank, unadorned explanation of just what he will get there and what he will be expected to give in cooperation, work and decent conduct. No man goes against his will though most of them, it must be admitted, go more from curiosity about "this new racket" than from conviction that it will be good for them. They've heard that before and it makes them laugh.

The camps are clean, orderly and rough. Every man has a decent bed in an airy bunk-house and an outfit of workclothes, underwear and shoes. To wash himself he takes his turn at a basin or shower. He does a regular tour of duty at kitchen-police and washes his own clothes with such facilities as may be. Assigned to a work-squad he puts in from four to six hours a day. Regularly he sits down to "three squares."

As an unexpected visitor I ate dinner with the men at Camp Roosevelt in Bear Mountain Park. We had roast beef and potatoes, string beans, cold slaw, canned pineapple, bread, butter, coffee and milk„with seconds for anyone who said the word. At Camp Haledon in New Jersey, again an unexpected visitor, I ate for supper a thick slice of bologna, creamed potatoes, beet and onion salad, stewed apricots, bread and butter and iced cocoa. Food-costs for camps in the eastern states run from twenty-one to thirty-five cents a day, not counting supplies received intermittently from the Surplus Relief Corporation.

Outside of working and meal hours and "lights out" there are no rules about time. A certain amount of recreation is stimulated by a leader but the men take it or let it alone. The younger ones take it. The older ones just sit or lie on their beds. Some of them read. A few putter around at projects of their own. A man at Camp Greenhaven, New York, who once had a glamorous adventure in Central America has decorated the tops of stone walls with bits of stone and cement to represent Mayan ruins as he remembers them. At Camp Roosevelt a man who has sailed the seven seas works endlessly perfecting, with such scraps of material as he can pick up, a model of a ship that once brought him luck.

Many of the camps have attempted formal educational activities without too much success. These men have broken completely with school and its ways, but they like educational movies and they like the discussion of current events with a good leader. Simple vocational courses are most popular if they can be tied to the practical doing of something or other.

At one camp a course in radio resulted in strangely contrived receivers all over the place. At another, after a course in motor mechanics, all sorts of abandoned wrecks of cars were dragged into camp and out of them was triumphantly constructed a weird looking vehicle which by some miracle actually runs.

But these are not the things that determine the holding power of a camp and its influence on the men. Work is the real medicine of the camp and on the quality of its work projects hang its results. Busy-work is no good. Leaf-raking does not fool these men. Work without the incentive of a final achievement which they can visualize in advance does not hold them. Given useful, constructive work, calling for personal ingenuity, with definite measures of progress and a modicum of outside appreciation they will toil tirelessly and enthusiastically.

I watched a gang disspiritedly hacking away at underbrush in a remote stretch of woods. "We're putting in our hours, lady, we're working for our keep," said one of them, grinning. Later on I watched another gang, after-hours by now, sweating under the loads of sand with which they were topping a wide rock-bordered path through the woods to a tiny lake. "Want to finish it before Sunday when a lot of folks go through here. Nobody could get to this lake before. Bet a lot of 'em never knew it was here."

Another argument for work projects which show fairly quick results is the effect on nearby communities which believe that the transients should work for their keep but under no circumstances at anything for which a local resident might be paid. By doing jobs which the community would never undertake but which it can see are useful and desirable, much local resistance is broken down and the men little by little find footholds in community life and lose some of their abnormal isolation.

All the men in camp have a small cash allowance, carefully underscored as relief and not as pay. This ranges from one to three dollars weekly according to the all-around usefulness of the man and his demonstrated capacity for responsibility. With this allowance he buys his cigarettes and postage stamps, gets a haircut from the man who has set himself up as camp barber, gets a shirt ironed, goes to the village movies and„yes, sometimes, human nature being what it is, gambles and drinks. And sometimes, too, he saves it rigorously for the "front" of a decent suit of clothes.

Many of the camp directors feel that the dollar a week allowance is the weak link in the whole chain of attempted rehabilitation. "How can you retrain men in work habits without the psychology of the pay envelope, without recognizing the principle of honest pay for honest work?"

The men themselves wonder why the CCC men and the "leaf-rakers" in the towns get a better break than they, who work the same hours and are doing, as they believe, more important work. They write letters such as this one which the director of Camp Roosevelt found under his door from a man who had worked up from pick and shovel to the responsible job of night-watchman, still at a dollar a week:

I wood like to no if you could get me $3 a week because I want to stay here till the plase clos up and I would haf something by then. I wood be please if I can get it. Off corse they wont be no hard feeling if you kant get for me. Not enny harm off asking. Hopeing to here from you. Excuase my writing.

It was possible to raise this man to $2.50 a week, but nine times out of ten the directors must explain as best they can the complications and restrictions that make one man's relief one thing and the next one's something else. The men, they say, are "unreasonably fair" about it.

"What do you do," I asked, "if the men refuse to work?"

"But they don't," was the answer. "They know what is expected of them and they accept the routine and go along with it. As long as we are fair they are fair. But you don't get anywhere trying to drive them; let them set their own pace and they produce results."

"But what of discipline? These men aren't Sunday-school boys."

"Anything but, and for that reason punitive and repressive measures are useless. They don't have to take it and they don't. But they have their own way of dealing with bad actors. If a man has dirty personal habits or is objectionable for more serious reasons you can trust his bunk-house mates to deal with him. A persistent course of snakes in the bed is, I am told, highly efficacious. Stealing is one offense for which we turn a man over to local authorities. For lesser offenses, such as drunkenness in camp, we have a regular hearing like a court-martial. Penalties range through demotion from responsible assignments, loss of privileges such as a trip to town on the truck, reduction of cash allowance, transfer to another camp and return to the city shelter. Never if we can help it do we throw a man out on the road without giving him some other choice.

"Why, at Camp Greenhaven they even offer him the chance of going to a jungle right on the camp property. They had there a great kicker whose last word in any discussion was, 'Hell, I'll go back to the jungle.' 'All right,' said the director one fine day, 'go ahead. There's a swell place for a jungle right down there by the tracks. Running water, shade and two freight trains a day. Go ahead.' And he did. Fixed it up, complete with tin cans and gunny sacks, in the best tradition of the road. Three or four of the men moved in with him while the rest hung around talking it over. Then came a cold heavy rain and the jungle boys came back to their clean dry beds. The jungle is still there and the men hang out in it as sort of a club-house. Some of them wash their clothes there. I'm told too that it has its uses for sobering up purposes."

"What about drunkenness? Do you have much of it?"

"We-ell, not much exactly, but what can you expect? Think of the way these men have lived. Liquor has been their only escape and God knows they still have enough to escape from. Of course your really seasoned drinker can't get drunk very often on a dollar a week. though some of them seem particularly talented. We can't be too hardboiled about it, but if a man must get drunk he's got to keep out of camp until he sobers up. We draw the line at the second offense. We lost a swell cook that way not long ago„used to be the chef in a Philadelphia country-club„but he would get drunk and raise merry Cain in camp, so he had to go back to the shelter.

"See that curly headed fellow over there playing checkers with the colored boy? Nice kid, isn't he? Well, there's a problem child for you. An honor man from a good western college, smartest man in camp and everybody likes him. He's been at two other camps in this state and by sheer ability and general usefulness won his way to responsibility. As soon as he got to the top he got drunk„and I don't mean just plain drunk. They put him back on pick and shovel and again he worked his way to the top, and to another bender. We have him now and I can see what's coming. But he's too darned good to throw away„why he isn't twenty-five yet. There ought to be something we could do for him."

"How do you hold men in camp if they want to leave?"

"We don't. We haven't any way to do it if we wanted to, and anyway that isn't the idea. The men come of their own volition and they go the same way. After the quality of the food and the nature of the work projects the holding power of the camp depends largely on the personality of the director, on his complete fairness, his resourcefulness in any situation and his ability to make good with the men right on the ground. But given all that, the itching foot still drives many a man on. Sometimes they talk it over with us, say they have jobs promised, or are going home or something. Usually they just go 'over the hill.'

"THE suggestibility of all these men is high. They come to camp by suggestion and they leave the same way. Someone has heard that a mill is opening somewhere and three or four of them drift off in the hope of a job. They hear that the camps in some other state have better chow or a higher cash allowance, and away they go. They know all about the intricacy of our settlement laws and the difference between an interstate and an intrastate transient, and the wise guys among them take advantage of it. Our settlement laws are really an encouragement to transiency and until they are amended or abolished our treatment of the whole baffling problem must remain confused and more ineffective than it needs to be."

Of course the camps have their critics. Few quarrel with the common humanity of providing some form of decent relief for these destitute citizens who have lost their claim on any community, and few will deny that it is better to have them doing useful work in camps than to have them roaming the country begging, pilfering, becoming increasingly demoralized.

But, say the critics, many of these men are seasonal laborers now unable, as in the past, to earn enough to carry them through off-seasons. Why should the federal government subsidize seasonal industry by caring for its unwanted manpower? To which the humanitarian poses another question: t "Well, what would you do with this man-power? For four years we threw it on the dump and the result alarmed us. Why not try something else? Keep that man-power, with its present low liability of employment, off the present glutted labor market. Keep it decent and productive in the camps. Revive the habit of regular work and the incentive to orderly living, and the seasonal industries will have to look elsewhere when they want casual labor."

The camps, say the critics, are incentives to youthful wanderlust, a succession of one-night stands for boys who don't like it at home and want to see the world. Well, hardly. It is not as easy as that to be admitted to a camp. But suppose it were, what of it? Since boys always have left home to seek adventure there seems point in the argument that it is better for the camps to catch them than the jungles of the chronic hoboes.

The future of the whole transient relief program is anyone's guess. Unless a drastic change in the policy of the FERA occurs its continuance at least until mid-winter seems assured. Up to July 1 it had cost the round sum of twenty and a half million dollars and was then running to about $3 million a month. The number of persons for whom it has cared in one way or another, admittedly but a fraction of those believed to be on the road, rose steadily from 110,180 in February to 192,288 in June. The turn-over of cases runs about 33 percent. At present the FERA foots the bills and lays down general policies while delegating administration to the states. Many social workers protest this decentralization of responsibility on the ground that the transient problem is national and that under the existing settlement laws only a national program, nationally controlled, can deal with it. State controlled programs cannot, they say, be freed from local politics and prejudice. The end result will be, they fear, that the transient will be thrown back on the road as a parasite and a menace to orderly community life.

The camps are still frankly experimental. Manv thoughtful people see in them the logical beginning of a new kind of institution which they believe to be an inevitable sequela of the dislocation of people under the depression. They see farm colonies for old men, obviously unemployable under competition, so organized and run that the work of the men, slow-paced though it be, will contribute to their own support and yield measurable values to the community. They see other camps where men of broken work-habits may be built back to such psychological and industrial competency that they can stand up to competition and be absorbed by local industry or in public projects. And they see still others, following the experience of the CCC where youth without work, escaped from paucity of opportunity at home, may be conditioned and trained for a stable way of life.

SEVERAL states are gradually shaping their transient camp programs within this framework, less from an articulated philosophy than from the lessons of experience. The point at which the camps„at least the half dozen in New York and New Jersey which I have seen in action„do not meet the formula is at their point of outlet. At the point of intake is a pretty clear basis of selection of the men whom the camps may reasonably be expected to benefit. The camps themselves are robust and realistic with a developing understanding of how to hold men long enough to influence them But what of the day when a man, his body sound and healthy, his initiative and self-confidence recovered, is ready to take hold of his own life again? At present he just goes„to such chance as he may be able to find for himself. Every camp points with pride to men who have gone out and found thernselves jobs in the neighborhood but I found little evidence of purposeful planning of facilities for that integration into community life and occupation which is the desired end result of it all. This is not easy, for the settlement laws raise barriers, there still are not enough jobs for the folk with families who never left home, and in spite of the good showing made by the men in camps most towns are still resentful of transients. The root of the whole difficulty is that the transient is unattached to any unit that fits our social pattern. This very quality subjected him to exploitation when casual labor had a market. It now practically blocks him from employment and, except for the transient service, even from relief.

Until facilities for job-finding are open to the men for whom the camps have done all they can there is a weak link in the chain of reconstruction. The National Reemployment Service would seem logically to be that link, but in reality it is not. Even when it registers these men without established residence they go to the bottom of the employment ladder with veterans, local family men and local unattached men crowding the rungs ahead of them. However the job-cards are dealt the transient, so far, has drawn the joker.

As we drove away from the hill-top camp the boy whose folks are called po' white trash looked up from his planting to wave a cheerful goodby. What, I wondered, will become of him. No one knows, himself least of all. Probably the camp will not hold him much longer„perhaps it should not. Perhaps his new-found habits of work and personal responsibility will stand up and he will find a foot-hold in a world still grudging of opportunity to such as he. Perhaps they will not and the easy road to the jungle will call him back. But with health and initiative recaptured the cards are not as heavily stacked against him as they were. At least he has a chance, and I, as a common or garden taxpayer, am glad.

 

 

 



Portrait of America: Survey Graphic in the Thirties