A hobo is a homeless person who lives a vagrant lifestyle, traveling from place to place. Hobos are also sometimes referred to as vagrants, tramps, or transients, depending on regional preference, and some people use the term “hobo” to refer to a specific type of vagrant homeless person. The United States hosts a large number of hobos, for a variety of reasons, although homeless transients can be found all over the world.
Homelessness has been a perennial fact of life for human societies, and many homeless people have historically traveled to seek work or to find friendlier communities where they might get assistance from charitable organizations, churches, or individuals. In the 1800s, many of these vagrants started train hopping, a practice in which people sneak onto trains for travel, and the term “hobo,” which arose in 1847, appears to have been linked specifically to train hopping transients in particular.
A hobo may be homeless by choice, preferring an open air lifestyle, or he or she may be forced into the lifestyle by economic circumstances, mental illness, and other factors. Historically, hobos often sought work in the towns they landed in, working as migrant laborers in the fields, washing dishes in restaurants, and performing other simple work in exchange for shelter, food, or money. Some modern hobos continue to seek out work as they travel, but many more are unemployed, relying on a variety of tactics for food and shelter.
The hobo lifestyle has often been romanticized and idealized, especially by those who have not experienced homelessness. Images of hobos riding the rails to seek their fortunes were common in many early 20th century novels, and hobos became especially high-profile during the Great Depression, when thousands of people were forced into transient lifestyles by the troubled American economy. In fact, hobos have a rough life, being at risk of injury, disease, and persecution from local authorities, as most communities do not like to house homeless populations.
In response to the hardship of the hobo life, hobos have developed a very insular society. They use a complex “hobo code” of chalk marks to send messages to each other, using universal symbols to convey information about train routes, the friendliness of specific houses, and so forth. Some hobos also abide by an ethical code which stresses the importance of behaving respectfully to ensure that hobos are welcomed in a community in the future, and places a heavy emphasis on keeping justice within the hobo community internal, with penalties for stealing from other hobos, lying, and other infractions.
In the mid-1800s, hobos even formed their own union, Tourist Union #63, to avoid persecution along their travels. Members of unions tended to attract less scrutiny while traveling in the 1800s, with people assuming that they were traveling for work, and hobos took advantage of the protections offered to union members by having their own independent union.