Americans became accustomed to seeing transients during the Depression. They were cut from different molds—some young, some old, many male, some female, some with families, many without, some African American, many white from varied ethnic backgrounds. Transients were the unemployed who knocked at backdoors and asked for handouts in return for doing odd jobs, the teenagers who jumped on boxcars and rode the rails, the hollow-faced families who tried to exchange beloved dogs or cats for gasoline so they could keep on going in worn-out cars held together by baling wire. All were hoping for better lives elsewhere.
With an estimated ten million individuals jobless in 1932, it is not surprising that hundreds of thousands moved from place to place in search of work or simply struck out on their own to keep from being extra burdens on already overburdened families. Adolescents sought adventure as they hopped freight trains to get away from home, but they soon confronted the realities of begging for their next meals and being run out of towns by local officials. Although the kindhearted sometimes helped them on their way with coffee and sandwiches, transients typically received little welcome even in communities that operated public or private shelters for the homeless. In many areas law enforcement officials claimed transients violated local laws against vagrancy and refused to let them stay within city limits.
Some transients ended up in "jungles," camps populated by the destitute on the fringes of incorporated areas. There the unemployed came in contact with hobos, tramps, and derelicts who had lived for years on the fringes of society. Hobos were long-term wanderers willing to work in exchange for food and shelter, while tramps simply sought handouts, and derelicts were alcoholics unfit to work even if they wanted to. Unlike the hobos, who preferred temporary labor and life on the road, transients wanted to settle down, but Depression conditions conspired to blur the distinctions between them and social outcasts who lived marginal existences.
Communities hard-pressed to take care of their own residents had no enthusiasm for newcomers. Indeed, the very word transient came to have an unfavorable connotation synonymous with undesirable. Animosity against transients came to a head in California, a magnet for the Okies, farmers unable to scratch livings from the drought-stricken southwestern Plains states. In 1936 the police chief of Los Angeles ordered 125 policemen to patrol the state's borders with Arizona and Oregon to deter transients from entering. Previously, in an effort to hold down welfare costs, the city had deported trainloads of Mexican-Americans, totaling nearly thirteen thousand, to Mexico (although many later returned).
In the case of the Okies, the Los Angeles police chief's efforts, which led to a suit by the American Civil Liberties Union in defense of migration, proved futile. By 1938 some 300,000 families, mainly from Oklahoma and neighboring Dust Bowl states, had entered California in three years in spite of resentment from native residents. Many of the transients, although they dreamed of acquiring their own farmlands, become part of California's force of migrant workers, following the crops to eke out a seasonal living on a few dollars a day.
EXTENT OF THE PROBLEM
The relatively new profession of social work, which attempted to ameliorate the plight of the transients and other Depression victims, produced one of the first credible estimates of the number of transients. The National Committee on Care of Transient and Homeless (NCCTH), a private group composed of social workers, sociologists, and citizens, surveyed persons in shelters in January 1933 and counted 370,000. Since many other individuals were sleeping in alleyways and other places, the total number of homeless was estimated to be 1,225,000, of whom about half were thought to be transients.
NCCTH pushed hard for federal help for transients, which Congress authorized in 1933 as part of a relief fund of $500,000,000 to be given out by the newly created Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). States, which were required to allocate matching funds, acted quickly to submit plans for transient relief to FERA. By January 1934 a total of forty states and the District of Columbia had established a network of camps, centers, and rooming houses to take care of transients, many of whom received a cash benefit of one dollar per week. Free medical care also was provided, in part because some transients were carriers of tuberculosis and other diseases.
Federal transient relief was phased out in 1935 when the New Deal changed its approach from direct assistance to work relief. At its peak the price tag for the transient program, which aided some 300,000 persons, was $5,000,000 per month. In subsequent years transients tended to be a neglected group in terms of government aid. Some federallyfunded camps for migrant workers, however, were set up.
At the instigation of Representative John H. Tolan of California, in 1940 the U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate the Interstate Migration of Destitute Citizens held a series of lengthy hearings around the country. Bertha McCall, executive director of Travelers Aid, which had absorbed the NCCTH, testified to the lack of accurate statistics on the number of actual transients, which was due in part to the difficulty of distinguishing them from hobos and bums. McCall gave a figure of about 400,000 transients known to her organization.
Many of the five hundred witnesses who came before the committee, whose hearings generated 4,245 pages of printed testimony, pleaded for federal help for transients. Yet they also argued that transients should not be set apart from the rest of the population, contending that general relief should be available throughout the nation for all needy persons, whether settled or not. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt appeared as a witness, reporting on deplorable living conditions that she had seen while visiting migrant camps in California, Texas, and Florida. She said society benefited from some movement by persons seeking employment, but that steps should be taken so that people could live decently.
Before the committee had finished its work, the approach of World War II changed the picture. Defense plants opened their doors, drawing in the unemployed. Congress extended the term of the committee but changed its name to the House Committee Investigating National Defense Migration. A new set of issues confronted those traveling to seek employment, but the days of countless numbers of unemployed transients were over. They left in their wake many touching stories of individuals who managed to survive painful circumstances.
Sociologist Thomas Minehan, who spent two years on the road studying rootless juveniles in the early 1930s, estimated that 10 percent of the adolescents he encountered were girls, usually dressed in male clothing and often traveling with a group of boys. Frequently, the women exchanged sexual favors for food, protection, and transportation in railroad boxcars. Riding the rails offered a dangerous form of adventure, with transients facing the possibility of being injured or killed in accidents while trying to elude railroad police looking for trespassers.
Lack of sanitation coupled with exposure and a poor diet led to weakness and disease for transients, regardless of their mode of transportation. Women and African Americans faced extra perils. Their sex and their race made them particularly vulnerable to harassment.
When another sociologist, Herman Schubert, surveyed transients in 1935 in New York state, he found African Americans from fifteen to twentyfour years old likely to be on the road longer than whites. In interviews with nearly three thousand youths, about one-fourth of whom were African American, he discovered that the median time for the whites to have traveled was three months, while the comparable figure for the African Americans was six months. The difference reflected prejudice that made it more difficult for African Americans than for whites to either settle down or return to their homes.
For some, however, riding the rails and other manifestations of the transient life remained lifelong memories of bittersweet excitement. Among the juvenile transients of the 1930s was Eric Sevareid, later to become a noted broadcast journalist. As quoted in T. H. Watkins's The Hungry Years (1999), Sevareid remembered with some fondness years later how he had joined a polyglot substratum of all races. He described Americans of varied ages who roamed restlessly, eating out of cans, sleeping in "jungles," eager to leave one place for another, content only to be on the move, lulled to momentary comfort by the clicking of the rails and the sight of telephone poles going by.
In spite of its hardships, life as a transient served as a way of growing up for a generation of American youth, who had little option except to become part of a vast army of the homeless. Forced to shift for themselves, they developed strategies of coping that testified to spiritual resiliency in the midst of desperation. Another transient adolescent told Minehan that he was eating better than he had been at home and was free of friction with his father who was out of work. The transient's life, hard as it was, offered one way of living through the Depression.
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Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Records of the Transient Division. Record Group 69, National Archives II, College Park, MD.
Frederickson, Kari. Review of Riding the Rails (1997), produced and directed by Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell. Journal for MultiMedia History 2 (1999). Available at: http://www.albany.edu/jmmh/.
Gregory, James N. American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California. 1989.
Hopkins, Harry L. Spending to Save: The Complete Story of Relief. 1936.
McWilliams, Carey. Ill Fares the Land: Migrants and Migratory Labor in the United States. 1942.
Minehan, Thomas. Boy and Girl Tramps of America. 1934.
National Association of Travelers Aid Societies. Records. Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
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Maurine H. Beasley