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Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

HOMELESS, VAGRANTS, AND TRAMPS

HOMELESS, VAGRANTS, AND TRAMPS

HOMELESS, VAGRANTS, AND TRAMPS. The causes of homelessness, such as unemployment, the lack of affordable housing and the lack of facilities for the mentally and physically infirm, are national problems. The history of the homeless in Cleveland reflects national trends in the numbers of homeless and the community's response to the homeless problem. Cleveland's economy was seasonal and subject to the national economic cycles. In the decades prior to Cleveland's emergence as an industrial center, sailors and dock workers were unemployed when the port closed in the winter, as were the canal and railroad workers. Men gathered in the city to await the opening of the shipping season. These were some of the first homeless in Cleveland. Cleveland suffered through the nation's economic cycles: the depression of 1873, the Panic of 1896, the depressions of 1915 and the post-World War I years, the Great Depression, and the economic depression of the 1980s. Each period witnessed an increase in the homeless of Cleveland.

The assumption in the pre-industrial era was that families cared for their own; only the "worthy poor" who were willing to work should be supported by the community. Ohio poor laws were intended to provide relief for those who were entirely destitute, helpless and dependent upon public charity. State law determined how local governments would provide public assistance to their citizens if the relief was temporary. The township was the primary governmental body responsible for the care of resident indigents. Tax levies provided funds to assist those who had no other means of support; however, only those persons who established "legal settlement" in a township were eligible for assistance. This requirement was instituted to prevent outsiders from moving to a township in order to take advantage of assistance which was intended only for the residents of the community, for once legal settlement was obtained, the community was obligated to provide assistance.

Pre-World War I. In 1816 the Ohio legislature authorized county governments to build and administer poorhouses and infirmaries to provide long-term relief for their poor and homeless. Cuyahoga County was the only county in Ohio which did not establish a poorhouse, so Cleveland took on the responsibility. The Cleveland City Charter of 1836 authorized "care of paupers in a poorhouse," and until the council voted to construct a poorhouse and infirmary in 1849 and levied a tax to pay for it, the homeless found shelter in a wooden building behind the ERIE ST. CEMETERY. The infirmary housed infirm and insane indigents as well as the poorhouse and the Outdoor Relief Department. The poorhouse served most of the needs of the homeless until the first widespread economic depression of the 1870s. As people became less economically independent and more dependent on industry and economic cycles, the number of homeless persons quickly outstripped the community's ability to provide assistance to them. Outdoor relief, as opposed to direct relief, consisted of the distribution of food and fuel to indigent citizens in their homes. A tax on liquor funded outdoor relief; however, the funds generated by the tax were usually insufficient to meet all requests for assistance, so private philanthropy supplemented the city's efforts.

Cleveland had its share of vagrants, tramps who rode the rails, former prisoners released into the community without any means of support, and the unemployed from nearby communities looking for work, in addition to the homeless who had established legal residence and were entitled to public assistance. An 1853 ordinance provided that any person found within the city limits "loitering about the streets, whether by day or night, and not having any known place of residence or visible means of support and not being able to give any satisfactory account of himself" would be jailed for 30 days and fed only bread and water. A city ordinance passed in 1878 provided that vagrants would be given temporary lodging at the city's expense in a building adjacent to the Central Police Station, provided they pay for their lodging by working on public projects, such as cleaning streets and shoveling snow. "Poverty Barn" housed up to 100 "homeless wanderers" every night in 1886. Vagrants who refused to work in return for lodging and food were fined up to $50 and imprisoned in the county workhouse for up to 6 months. The infirmary was overcrowded with transients and homeless. So many poor and infirm people were found in the public streets that Mayor Herrick wanted to give police authority to transport them to hospitals at the city's expense. He also suggested that each hospital in the city set aside beds, again at the city's expense, for destitute and ailing patients.

Religious groups and the philanthropy of Cleveland's leading citizens supplemented the traditional sources of relief, which proved inadequate shortly after the Civil War. Civic and industrial leaders supported the community's relief efforts; STILLMAN WITT founded a boarding house for working women in 1869 and AMASA STONE donated a building for a Home for Aged Women in 1886. The Bethel Relief Assn. furnished temporary aid, employment and lodging for unemployed seamen, railroad workers and transients willing to work in return. The Cleveland Sanitary Commission and SOLDIER'S AID SOCIETY OF NORTHERN OHIO, organized in 1861, raised money for sick and wounded soldiers. Nationality organizations helped their own, such as Mona's Relief Society, founded in 1851, to provide assistance to people from the Isle of Man. FRIENDLY INN SOCIAL SETTLEMENT, organized in 1874, provided lodging along with religious and temperance meetings. The CLEVELAND HUMANE SOCIETY opened the Lida Baldwin Infant's Rest in 1887 to care for homeless children. The SALVATION ARMY opened Rescue Home in 1892 to provide temporary shelter for "wayward and unfortunate girls." Unwed mothers were given lodging and religious and vocational training. The YWCA (see YOUNG MEN'S CHRISTIAN ASSN.) provided lodging for transients. By 1890 the YWCA had established a Home for Aged Women, the Retreat for Fallen Women and the Working Women's Home. The Men's Home and Wayfarer's Lodge grew out of the street preaching efforts of the Cleveland Evangelization Society. In 1890 the society rented a house where young men and boys could find shelter. For $.10 a transient could register and receive a clean nightshirt, bed, bath, and breakfast of coffee and bread. If he could not pay for lodging, he had to provide 3 hours of work.

Cleveland had a reputation as a paradise for derelicts and undesirables because of the easy availability of handouts on the streets and at back doors of homes. Train tramps would hop off freight trains on the outskirts of the city and walk into town to panhandle; if they were found by police, they were rapidly escorted to the city limits. The economic depression of the 1890s caused widespread unemployment in Cleveland. In 1893-94 an estimated 25,000 unemployed workers sought relief from various philanthropic, civic, and religious organizations. The city provided outdoor relief to 2,000 families in 1892 and 15,000 in 1893-94, in addition to free medical care provided by the infirmary. In 1895 the City Department of Charities delivered 250 tons of food per week to families in need.

The doctrine of the "worthy poor" persisted through the 1890s and into the next century. Only those who were willing to work in return for relief were considered fit objects of the community's assistance. The Chamber of Commerce Citizens' Relief Assn. raised money to employ men at low wages to work for the city, but there was no large-scale relief program in place. The newly formed Park Board was encouraged by labor leaders and the city newspapers to provide work opportunities for the unemployed during the harsh winter of 1894, but the Park Board did not want to become a relief project. It was also suggested that the city seek the cooperation of the railroads in preventing train tramps and vagrants from hopping off trains in Cleveland. In 1915 a Federation For Charity and Philanthropy Committee studying the homeless problem recommended that the city regulate flophouses and provide municipal shelters to lodge transients.

Post-World War I. The number of homeless on the streets increased after World War I. City ordinances were revised in the mid-1920s, a reflection of the severity of the problem, to define a vagrant or common beggar as any male person who was able to perform manual labor but who had not made reasonable efforts to procure employment or had refused to labor at reasonable prices. Vagrants were prohibited from gathering on sidewalks, street corners, in front of churches and in the public parks. The advent of the automobile brought even more transients passing through Cleveland, placing an even greater burden on the sources of assistance and threatening the public health. The infirmary reported increasing numbers of transients suffering from tuberculosis and social diseases. The winter of 1927 found the Wayfarers' Lodge and the Salvation Army filled to capacity, and transients found shelter in the city jail. In 1926 500 members of the Cleveland Unemployed Council (CUC) presented its demands (including free kitchens, free food for school children, free fuel and free shelter) to the Welfare Committee of the City Council. The CUC claimed there were 95,000 unemployed men and women in Cleveland. The Welfare Committee did not respond in any constructive manner.

Great Depression and World War II. The 1930s saw not only the usual increase in the number of homeless in the winter due to the closing of the port, but the closing of steel mills and the Detroit auto plants brought more unemployed men to Cleveland. Property taxes and the issuance of bonds were the means by which Cleveland and surrounding communities funded poor relief. In 1931 the city sought approval from the state legislature to increase its bond-issuing authority; an estimated $1.4 million was necessary to provide relief for the last half of 1931, while only $310,000 was available. In an effort to prevent the duplication of services and to conserve resources, the Central Bureau for Homeless and Transient Men was established. Homeless men were registered when they applied for shelter and research into the causes of homelessness was conducted.

The homeless problem had traditionally been a problem of white, seasonally unemployed men and hobos, but in the 1930s, increasing numbers of young girls, older women, and boys found themselves homeless in Cleveland. In Jan. 1933 a survey of freight terminals, jungles (vacant buildings where numbers of homeless found shelter), flophouses, jails, railroad and bus terminals counted over 5,400 homeless men, most of whom were transients, and over 800 homeless women in Cleveland. The Catholic Diocese soup kitchen was feeding 800 men a day. The PLAIN DEALER reported in Jan. 1933 that direct relief (the provision of food, clothing, and shelter) was given to over 30,000 families, 20 times more than in 1929. There were several shantytowns within the city limits, the largest of which was located at 13th St. and Lake Shore, home to 200 men, most of whom had been unemployed for years. Train tramps hopped off freight trains at the COLLINWOOD RAILROAD YARDS and stayed at the shantytown located at the Collinwood Brickyard, panhandling or begging for food. The shantytown adjacent to CLEVELAND MUNICIPAL STADIUM was burned down by the police because it constituted an eyesore to the people attending events at the stadium.

WPA projects, federal relief programs and the construction of public housing provided employment and eased the homeless problem (see WORK PROJECTS ADMINISTRATION). The war years witnessed a decline in the number of able-bodied homeless men as relief rolls decreased from a high in 1935 of 23,000 to 746 in 1944. The return of servicemen after the war resulted in a housing shortage, particularly for single women and women with children. The revision of the city building code in 1949 and the condemnation of unfit housing, followed by evictions, caused a critical housing emergency. The city council considered using the CENTRAL ARMORY as temporary housing for families with children.

Post-World War II. The 1950s and 1960s were decades of relatively little concern for the plight of the homeless nationally, as well as in Cleveland, although migrants from the southern states and the influx of immigrants after the war taxed available housing. Urban renewal projects demolished inner city neighborhoods, transient hotels and flophouses, and the residents found themselves on the street.

The economic depressions of the late 1970s and 1980s, the erosion of Cleveland's industrial base and the attendant unemployment, the national trend of deinstitutionalizing the populations in mental institutions, reductions in state and federal welfare programs, and the lack of affordable low-income housing resulted in increased visibility of the homeless problem in Cleveland. Overflow shelters were created when General Assistance was reduced in 1990. Church-sponsored groups and organizations, such as the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, which was incorporated in 1989, attempt to place homeless people in temporary or transitional shelters. The coalition publishes The Homeless Grapevine, a newspaper sold on street corners by homeless persons as an alternative to panhandling. The Coordinating Council on Homelessness, a cooperative effort between the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County, was established in 1991 to provide a plan for addressing the needs of the homeless in the community. The council estimated that there were approx. 10,000 homeless people in Cuyahoga County in 1990. The Office of Homeless of the Cuyahoga County Department of Development was established in 1993 to coordinate services for the homeless. There are presently over 40 agencies providing emergency, transitional, and temporary shelter, medical care, transportation, job training, and counseling for the homeless, funded by private donations, foundations, and federal and state programs.

Laura J. Gorretta


Federation for Community Planning, Records, WRHS.

Kaiser, Clara A. Organized Social Work in Cleveland, Its History and Setting (1936).

Whipple, James B. Cleveland in Conflict, A Study in Urban Adolescence (1951).