This blog explores the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California

The difference between a tramp and a bum


You really don't hear the words "tramp" or "bum" anymore. Well, not in the way that they were originally used, to signify someone who travelled around. And nowadays, when we see someone who looks like what our grandparents might have called a bum or a tramp, we just lump them into a category called "homeless", and assume that they are bums. But this does many of these people a disservice, as many are tramps but not all are bums. Please let me explain.

Time-travel with me, and let's tramp around the world. Yes, we're wandering around, from city to city, country to country. We have no permanent address. When we need money, we work for it. We take odd jobs, we follow migrant work. We may not have a permanent address, but that really doesn't matter. We're seeing the world, maybe waking up on a beach one day and then feeling the snow fall on us the next. We're tramps, we are not bums.

Bums follow the same path as tramps - no permanent address, that sort of thing, but they refuse work. If they want a cigarette, they "bum" one. They panhandle, which is an old-fashioned term for begging. They "borrow" things that don't belong to them (and every lock that ain't locked when no one's around...!)

When I see someone waking up in a park, slinging their backpack over their shoulder, I don't assume that they are bums, I assume that they are tramps. If they walk up to me, hassle me, and beg for money, I usually just say no and smile gently. On occasion I've walked with people to share breakfast and to my local Church, which gives food, and helps people re-establish their life, if this is what they choose, and need.

If you've never been a tramp, it's easy to assume that they are all bums. But they're not, if you take a closer look.