Our City Vagrants 1874

The Habits, Homes and Amusements of the Street Boys of New York
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As the season wears on toward Winter, and country vagrancy becomes no longer pleasant and profitable, the loafers and idlers begin to flock into the City. We have enough of these at all seasons of the year, but in the Summer they pick up a precarious living in the rural districts within easy reach of New York.

We hear of them in New Jersey, on Long Island, and scattered through Westchester and adjoining counties. They forage in the orchard and the vegetable field. Farmers sometimes come upon camps of them roasting green corn by fires from fence-rails, broiling a fat chicken from a neighboring barn-yard, or cooking stolen potatoes in the ashes.

Many fruit-raisers declare that they despair of paying expenses while they cultivate orchards so near the City as to afford solace and shelter to the predatory horde that spreads itself over the country during the Summer. No city is without them; no part of the country is ever entirely free from them, unless it may be some pathless wilderness where there is absolutely no neglected thing that can be profitably appropriated by these tenants at large. They have been away all Summer; they are coming back with the fashionable people.

People who keep what are called "regular hours," do not know how large a portion of the City's population sleeps out of doors, and in public places, nor how many men walk the streets through the bitter cold of Winter, dozing against lamp-posts, or in secluded corners, in the painful intermissions of their forced marches. These all find the cool nights uncomfortable in their looped and windowed raggedness. The vagrants who have been tramps during the Summer have returned to their old haunts; and these, with the drifting thousands who have bivouacked in the streets, are ready to swell the idle, aimless, thriftless horde which for want of a better name we call the pauper element. The number of able-bodied men out of work and dependent upon chance charity is very large; it seems likely to increase. Already, though the warm days of out-door comfort have scarcely passed, the streets are thronged with mendicants of every grade, from the miserable cripple whose helplessness is an appeal in itself, to the sturdy young fellow who belligerently demands "change enough to get a glass of whisky."

It is an alarming fact that the begging class grows larger, more aggressive, and more of a nuisance. On some days the main thoroughfares seem absolutely blockaded with beggars in all sorts of disguises, beggars unmistakable, beggars "in mufti," beggars in ambush, and beggars suddenly unmasking themselves from behind the deceptive appearance of a semi-seedy garb that might pass muster for "respectable" almost anywhere. Here and there one meets a petitioner who might be a highway-man if the night were dark and the street unfrequented; and now and then the humble applicant for a crust of bread makes off with the door-mat or any portable property within reach from the neglected house-entrance. But, for the most part, these mendicants are not thieves; perhaps they are not downright banditti for the same reason that they are idle; they have not force enough to be anything else but what they are vagrants.

What to do with these shiftless hangers-on is a problem that has vexed older communities than ours. Happily, the burden has not yet been so pressed upon us that we need despair. But, in the first place, it may as well be conceded that there is a large class of people who do not want work, and who only pretend that they do while they beg. Then there is another class who hang about the City with fatal persistence, though they may find employment out of it. It is also true that soup-houses, and all other forms of unquestioning relief for the poor, are immediately filled with these two classes, to the exclusion of the more deserving. If the managers of charitable institutions decide to keep "open house" in any sense of the term, we must suppose that they know what is best, after a careful examination of all the facts. But the expedient is always a doubtful one. We may as well now consider that the City will be burdened this Winter with many destitute people, of our own and of the surrounding country. We urge in advance that charitable assistance be first directed to finding work for the unemployed. It is better that five dollars be spent in nominal wages for work that is not needed to be done than one dollar in direct charity.

There are many associations whose business it is to pick up in the City the homeless and workless, and send them where they will find shelter and employment. These ought to be liberally helped by those who have money to give, and no time to give it with personal attention. The dominant purpose of all organized charity should be to find work. Above all, there should be no hue and cry of vast public measures for the relief of the idle. We need no advertisement to attract and encourage vagrancy. And when the able-bodied pauper is set to work, there will be abundant relief for the silent poor and for those who have no helper.


Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: Our City Vagrants 1874
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


 New York Times Oct 7, 1874. p.4 (1 page)
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