Hobohemia: The City

Most large American cities, especially those in the Midwest, had a district that catered to the fraternity of wandering unemployed and homeless. The neighborhood was home and here a man could find men of his type: "The veteran of the road finds other veterans; the old man finds the aged; the chronic grouch finds fellowship; the radical, the optimist, the crook, the inebriated, all find others here to tune in with them."1 Here he will also find job information, medical attention, and a place to stay - and perhaps an indoor odd job - for the winter months.

The neighborhoods were centered around one street, called the Main Stem, and were usually close to the center of transportation and trade. In San Francisco, the Stem was 3rd Street; in New York City, it was the Bowery; it was South Main in L.A. and Pratt Street in Baltimore. In Chicago, host of the most famous, studied, and celebrated Main Stem in the country, the street was West Madison.

Here characteristic institutions have arisen -- cheap hotels, lodginghouses, flops, eating joints, outfitting shops, employment agencies, missions, radical bookstores, welfare agencies, economic and political institutions -- to minister to the needs, physical and spiritual, of the homeless man.2

The main stay of the Main Stem was the cheap lodging house or flophouse where a man might secure a night's stay for 10 to 25 cents. He might arrive in the city after making his "stake" - hopefully enough money to last a winter's stay. Carleton Parker estimated that a $30 stake would last a man the winter. Many of the lodging house inmates were tubercular; the beds were dirty; there was vermin. When the $30 stake runs out, the worker goes to the street, to the saloons, and to the city for shelter. Parker went on to point out that in a ten year period, the Chicago Police Stations gave lodging to 1,275,463 homeless men, and the municipal lodging house to 370,655. Only 20% of these residents were actually from Chicago.3 In the winter in the city there were jobs in hotels or in restaurants, odd jobs to which one might resort if the stake ran out. Otherwise there were always the missions....

In the city the hobo found resources of vital information about employment and opportunities, both from his fellow road travelers and from the employment agencies that lined the Main Stem. Private agencies offered up notices of jobs - many of which involved long distance interstate shipments to the jobsite. Sometimes the agencies charged fees to the employer, the employee, or both. Streets with a plethora of agencies were called "slave markets" and agents who trolled the streets looking for employees to ship out were called "man catchers". The hobo both needed these agencies and distrusted them; there was no guarantee that the job would even exist when he reached the destination. He might arrive at a job hundreds or thousands of miles away and, if he were no longer needed for some reason, he would be stranded. In turn, hobos sometimes used the set-up to get a free ride out of town on the "cushins".

In the spring this labor group drifts out toward the first work. In main, they beat their way. ... Numerous statistical studies show that the average period on a job of the migratory is between ten and fourteen days. With a stake of $10 he will retire to a hobo camps beside some stream, his "jungle," as the road vernacular has it, and adding his daily quarter or half a dollar to the "mulligan fund" will live on until the stake is gone. If he tends to live further on the charity of the new comers he is styled a "jungle buzzard" and cast forth. He then resumes his haphazard job-search, the only economic plan in his mind a faint realization that about August he must begin to accumulate his $30 winter stake.4

Organizations set up to help the hobo included the International Brotherhood Welfare Association. The IBWA was set up to help hobos in their campaign for jobs and to provide fellowship for them in the city. "For the skinners and ice harvesters, the berry grabbers and oyster glommers, the apple knockers and spud diggers, for the hop pickers, all the migrant stiffs, the IBWA held out the vision, however ephemeral, of shorter work days, free transportation to and from job sites, abolition of the nefarious private employment agencies, free municipal baths and laundries, and unemployment insurance...."5 Perhaps the most interesting legacy of the IBWA were the "Hobo Colleges" set up in major cities. Designed to educate the hobo on politics and economics as well as provide practical information regarding vagrancy laws and venereal disease, the colleges were both a forum and a refuge for the hobo.6

Coming from the chop-house we went to an employment office, where we read upon the blackboard:
"Wanted -- Fifty men in Oklahoma, $1.35 a day, free shipment."
We stepped inside for further information and found that the board would be three dollars and a half a week. The boy studied for a moment and then said:
"Let's go."
"You go," I replied, "you are strong enough for the work, but I'm not. I may meet you down that way when the harvest opens."
"I think I will go," he replied. "It's hard work, ten hours a day, and if I lose two days out of the week by bad weather or sickness or a hundred other reasons, or buy a few things I've got to have, I will be in debt to the company at the end of the week. But it's better than to stay here and beg or starve. Some fellows can 'mooch' but that's one thing I've never got low enough to do, and I hope I never will. It's only a bare existence there, but as you say, the harvest will soon be open, I'll go."7

The city was both a labor market and a winter refuge. In it a man found the next job, a bed in the meantime and a cheap meal; for the completely down and out, there were the missions. Out on the road was a different matter. The social center for the man on the move was the hobo jungle.

the jungle