What A Rich Man Learned In Living With Hoboes

A rich man living with hoboes? That sounds like the plot of a Mel Brooks movie (because it is the plot of a Mel Brooks movie).

The article is actually considerably less funny. It’s by Edwin A. Brown, a wealthy man who spent “years studying the lives and conditions of the great floating body of homeless men in the United States by going among them, living with them, and sharing their every hardship and disadvantage.”

An excerpt:

My idea of the tramp was that he was such by preference, a conception due to the humorous cartoons in the papers, stage representations of “Weary Willies,” and various fantastic newspaper and magazine articles on tramp customs, life, sign language, etc. I went first directly to the kilns and spent a night with the men, moving out with them at daybreak, and to my astonishment nearly all of them had a common destination, the principal cluster of employment offices of the city.

That day and often, often since, I have seen men huddled before the offices in the bitterest weather, their pockets and stomachs empty, few of them half-sufficiently clad, but all of them eager to take on any sort of work, no matter how heavy it might be or what the wages, just so that the ycould win for themselves the necessities of life. Men such as these are worth saving…

There are many times when the homeless must creep in anywhere that shelter is to be found. Usually the places left open are spots too repulsive to need a guard. Often, often have I gone after midnight into stables in out-of-the-way places in the cities and, half-buried in the dung heaps, where the decay makes warmth and there is a certain softness, I have found clusters of miserable human beings. Is it any wonder that death and disease are rife among them? Once I discovered a boy and his beautiful dog, both tramps, lying in such a bed. They had been there three days and nights undisturbed, the boy too ill with pneumonia to get out where he could get help, the dog sticking close by his side.

In a wreck last year on the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton four tramps were killed in a smashed lumber car, and the Coroner was gravely puzzled because two of them gave evidences of having been dead some time before they were crushed by the shifting timbers. Investigation showed that they had been frozen at least two days previous while they slept in the Detroit yards, the bodies were hauled into another State, and two other men perished with the already dead without knowing of their proximity…

There is no end to the tales I might tell, but enough. If what I have said has brought conviction, then it is time that earnestly, emphatically I urge the only remedy. For the criminals and the depraved, houses with bars if you will. For the incapacitated asylums and hospitals, also. But for the honest, willing workingman without work or a home, something more merciful than free lodging houses from which he must move on. The question of what that something should be is not a very difficult one to answer…

Private charity cannot be depending upon to boost the half million Americans who are under the shelf of life over the edge to a foothold in society. A big public movement must do it. The method is to give the wanderer… a chance to get strong, clothes to keep him warm and hold up his sense of decency, and a job that will buy him a roof and food. If he fails to go on then, well — he belongs in the hopeless tenth.

Brown eventually turned his experience into a book called Broke: The Man Without The Dime, which you can get as a pdf or other ebook format by following that link to Google Books.

WHAT A RICH MAN LEARNED IN LIVING WITH HOBOES: Edwin A. Brown of Denver Tells of His Experiences as a Tramp and Suggests Radical Measures for Helping Homeless Human Beings. (PDF)

From January 15, 1911

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