Baltimore Evening Sun (24 August 1911): 6.
The most painstaking study of vagrancy ever attempted in this country, and one marked by intelligence as well as care, finds its record in “One Thousand Homeless Men,” by Alice Willard Solenberger, a book of 376 pages, just issued by the Charities Publication Committee of New York at the expense of the Russell Sage Foundation. Mrs. Solenberger (who was then Miss Willard) was given charge of the central district station of the Chicago Bureau of Charities in 1900, and there she remained for three years, in constant contact with that ceaseless stream of vagrants which flows through Chicago. She managed, during the course of those three years, to gain the confidence, in some measure, of l,000 homeless men and boys, and during the seven years following she kept track of many of these wanderers. The result was a vast mass of extremely valuable data, which was almost ready for the printer when Mrs. Solenberger died, in December of last year. The business of editing it has been done very acceptably by Francis H. McLean, of the Sage Foundation, and the result is a book which makes a genuine contribution to sociology.
Just how many tramps there are in the United States Mrs. Solenberger does not attempt to determine, but she points out that the estimates of most authorities are probably too high. Edmond Kelly, in his “The Elimination of the Tramp,” puts the number at 500,000, and seeks to defend his guess by showing that about 4,000 trespassers are killed on the railroads of the United States each year, by assuming that the mortality rate among them is equal to that among trainmen and by going to the railroads for accurate reports of trainmen employed and killed. But Mrs. Solenberger shows that this is unfair, for many of the trespassers killed—perhaps half of them—are not tramps or homeless men, in any true sense, but merely boys and men stealing casual rides between cities. The actual number of tramps in the United States is probably not more than 250, 000, with the possibility that even that estimate is too liberal.
Mrs. Solenberger’s study, however, is not confined to tramps, properly so-called, but includes all homeless men, of whatever variety, including the halt and the blind, workmen temporarily out of employment, men too old to work, beggars who seldom travel, and runaway boys. In the city of Chicago alone, there is a permanent population of fully 40,000 such men and boys and during severe winters it tends to rise to 60,000. No doubt New York has fully 75,000 and the other cities of the first-class another 75,000 between them, with 50,000 scattered elsewhere through the country. This gives us a more or less constant lodging house population of more than 250,000—a population always at the gates of want and making more or less regular demands upon public charity.
But the majority of these men, it is probable, are in no sense vountary parasites upon society, as Mrs.Solenberger’s study of her 1,000 shows. It is disease, accident or lack of employment that starts most of them upon the downward road and that keeps them going, once they are started. Among the 1,000 she found but 125 in whom the habit of begging was firmly established, and of these less than half were men who begged deliberately and of free choice. Nearly 10 per cent. of the beggers were men and boys who were congenital inefficients and a number of others had been forced into mendicacy by sheer (though perhaps temporary) necessity. All of the members of these latter groups, in Mrs. Solenberger’s opinion, might have been reclaimed had adequate reclamation agencies existed.
Physical and mental inefficiency rather than any moral defect seems to be the chief cause of vagrancy. The homeless man, in brief, is simply a man with less than the normal capacity for making a decent living. That lack of capacity may be inborn, or it may be the fruit of accident or disease. Of the 1,000 men examined by Mrs. Solenberger, 254, or more than a quarter, were “either temporarily or permanently crippled or maimed.” And of the remainder, probably half showed signs of serious disease—often tuberculosis. Not more than 10 per cent. of the men were physically fit and mentaly normal. Deliberate choice, save among the runaway boys, was only rarely the cause of their hand-to-mouth, gypsy mode of life.
Mrs. Solenberger blames the lodging house for the distressing physical condition of many of the men she studied. An industrious workmen, let us say, without immediate family ties, suddenly loses his employment or is disabled by an accident—and until he can recover his independence he must live in cheap lodgings and earn a few dollars a week however he may. With what result? Often with the result that he contracts tuberculosis or some other disease in his filthy kennel and emerges from it at last, if he ever emerges at all, a sick and inefficient man. Thereafter he is a permanent burden upon society. He cannot work as he used to work, and so he begs or asks for help, and once that habit is established he is commonly beyond aid.
What is to be done about it? How are these men to be saved? How are they to be restored to productive activity? Alas, the question is easier asked than answered. Mrs. Solenberger points out how small, though appreciable, advances might be made. For one thing, the lodging houses might be cleaned up and kept clean–a herculean job, but one that still falls short of impossibility. For another thing, more sanitoria might be established for the care of the sick, and the rules might be made more hospitable to the stranger than they are today. For yet another thing, the police might be more assiduous in enforcing the laws against begging.
All of these devices would tend to decrease the number of dependent men. But a large army of them would still remain. No doubt the dispersal of that army will remain an unsolved problem forever. We may aid the maimed, the sick and the helpless of today, but tomorrow there will be more. And that grim procession will continue to march across the stage for all time to come, for the struggle for existence will never end, and so long as it continues there will be men defeated and trampled down—men congenitally unfit for the fight—men who, whatever we do for them, will never measure up to their efficient fellows—men born to die miserably after lives of hoggishness and hardship.
All we can do is to strive against nature as best we may. Undertaking the vain task of stamping out poverty and inefficiency altogether, we may manage, by great effort, to save a few lucky individuals from the fate foreordained for them. But the majority must live out their useless and unhappy lives in their wallow.