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Are you a Bum or a Hobo?

Are you a Bum or a Hobo?

I just finished a book that focuses on teenagers that “rode the rails” in the 1930’s. These teenagers were interviewed about 65 years later and told stories about their many adventures. During the Great Depression two million Americans were roaming the land on freight trains for varied reasons. One was because unemployment was at 25% in 1933.

The rail riders fell into three categories.

Hobos were people who traveled for work. Often doing farm labor like picking crops yet they also bummed as needed. This account gets me thinking about boys that left their home, which was just a “place of existence” to travel south towards the cotton fields of Texas to earn a living.

Vagabonds on the other hand were wandering for adventure. They picked up work when they had to, bummed as needed, yet they were seeing the country for free on freight trains.

Bums, everyone “bummed” at some point, as in looked for handouts or asked for food during this era. However, a person who was an actual “Bum,” their only work was begging. The difference is bums feel no shame, while hobos and vagabonds said, “begging was the worst thing in the world” and it made them feel like a “third-class citizen.” Bums on the other hand begged for a living and had learned slippery and almost sinister ways to trick and guilt donations.

One man by the name of Leer recounted a story where he was able to hitch a ride from a stranger when he was a young boy. He got into the back of a truck loaded with empty milk cans. After several miles, the woman stopped at a turnoff, and he climbed out. She asked him “Are you hungry, boy?” He answered “Yes, ma’am, I’m hungry.” She then asked, “Are you a bum or a hobo?”

It was the first time Leer heard the question. He was not sure what the difference was. “I’ll work for something to eat” he mumbled.

“Then you are a hobo, boy. Bums won’t work but hobos will.” “I haven’t been on the road long enough to learn that?” He responded, “I guess not, ma’am, but I’d sure work for something to eat.”

Those who rode the rails lived in “the jungle,” which was a hobo camp not too far from the rail. Too long in the jungle without a purpose would cause teenagers to pick up unpleasant habits that they were not easily able to discard. These often were criminal habits. It was “observed that after six-months on the road, the boys and girls lost their fresh outlook and eagerness.” They would “stare in one spot for a long time, only occasionally shifting their eyes” which was noted as the same expression seen on faces of men with battle fatigue.

The period of Americans riding the rails peaked and then ended with the Great Depression winding down. Government programs and war gave the drifting railroad population work and a reason to commit to a home.


We see hobos, vagabonds, and bums across America today. The difference is the unemployment rate is about 5% not 25% and it is hard to get to a destination on trains illegally nowadays. I know, I played hobo on a tanker train once about 20 years ago. Let me know if you would like to hear that story.

I see modern-day bums and I have a bone to pick with the way we are managing the situation. America is letting these “bums,” people who will not work take over our cities. I see modern “hobo jungles” pop-up all-around bridges where people beg. We feed them our dollars from car windows, they thank us then leave their trash only to be seen the next day or week doing it again. These “villages” often look like the aftermath of a tornado, litter scattered in a manner that would have me believe it is intentionally and maliciously scattered litter to claim the area.


What I see society doing now is the equivalent to feeding the seagulls at a beach front restaurant. Sure, the seagulls are hungry but is that really the best place to feed them?

Are we training the seagulls to be a nuisance, to keep coming back to ruin future guests dining experiences? Have you ever seen a person cover their heads, abandon their food, and run for cover from a dive-bombing flock of sea gulls? Could be a horror movie.

Does giving money at the street corner train humans to live close to the street corners and increase in numbers? I will be the first to admit I am guilty of trying to help in the wrong way only to see it backfire.


Sitting at the red light, I am torn. I know some of these are good people like veterans who are suffering from PTSD or have deep psychological problems.

Yet I also see an able body guy in his thirty’s wearing cowboy boots practically prancing up and down the traffic line looking me in the eye with a well-used piece of cardboard that asks for donations, this guy can do productive work. I cannot walk in cowboy boots all day like that, but he prefers making motorist uncomfortable.

As Americans we have the privilege and obligation to help the needy, but at the same time we need think about how to police the qualifications for those benefits in a way that is respectful to the recipients. We have included a list of organizations in the attached insert that will help you help others.

Your ‘ole buddy,

Jeff J