COLUMN: Hobos and homelessness

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Dorothy Tomlison, who until recently lived near Evanston, mailed me newspaper and magazine clippings about hobos.

Being a hobo was quite a popular occupation in decades past, such as during the Great Depression, not out of choice, but necessity.

Times were tough and people lost homes and farms. That necessitated hitting the road – or the railroad – in search of jobs and opportunities.

The clippings she sent told about the help hobos offered to each other. Being a hobo made one a part of a brotherhood, so to speak, and hobos shared helpful information, often through pictures scrawled onto the sides of barns or landmarks near farms and homesteads.

For example, a picture of a chair meant one could get a good supper at a farmhouse down the road. A broken leg meant there would be supper, but the hobo would have to work for his viddles. A cross on top of the chair meant the hobo would need to get a sermon. “But that was better than a doodled cup, which warned you not to expect more than a stand-up snack at the back door,” one Scripps Howard clipping reported.

Hobos aren’t as common as they were but there are still plenty of homeless people around, even here in our community.

An African-American man has been staying in the city the past few weeks, sleeping on park picnic tables. I assume he is homeless. People have given him food and water. At least that’s what I’ve been told.

People have called complaining of a black man in a park. That’s not a bad thing since people with no home sometimes cause trouble. But not always.

I don’t know of any trouble he has caused. I don’t know his name. Like every hobo or homeless person, he has a story ... a family. He once had hopes and dreams. Maybe he still does.

I’ve never been homeless or without food. I can’t really imagine what it is like.

Many years ago, I hitchhiked from Detroit to Quebec as part of a religious pilgrimmage. The goal was to rely on the kindness of strangers, sort of like pilgrims did for centuries. Being cleancut and apparently harmless looking, I had no trouble hitching rides from city to city, first to Toronto, then Montreal and then to Quebec City. From there I made it to an area shrine.

It was a taste of homelessness, but not really. I knocked on church doors and told them I was a Jesuit novice. They welcomed me in and fed me.

We don’t always do that for the hobos of today.