Portrait of America: Survey Graphic in the ThirtiesHomeIntroductionEditor's NotesArticlesFurther Reading
Men off the Road

by Gertrude Springer

Photographs by Lewis Hine

September 1934

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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 transportation. 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.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003