Life on the rails less romantic than expected
Ben Hamby never dreamt of becoming homeless. After all, he had a full-time job and a nice apartment. He wasn’t rich, but he could pay the bills. Then one day, his world came crashing in. He lost his job and then his home. At just 18 years old, Hamby found himself standing on the lonely streets of Belmar, N.J. with absolutely nowhere to go.
“Initially, it was sort of like a Tom Sawyer adventure,” Hamby said. “You didn’t know what to expect or where you were going to end up.”
With nothing holding him back, Hamby decided to leave town and try his luck elsewhere, so with his few possessions packed tightly into an old backpack, he hitchhiked to Pittsburgh. There he met another homeless teenager named Richard and together they learned how to survive on the streets, often eating discarded food on the University of Pittsburgh campus and seeking refuge at night in abandoned warehouses or under bridges. Sometimes, their shelter was as simple as the canopy of a tree.
However, the two quickly became restless with Pittsburgh, so they hitchhiked to Columbus, Ohio and began to watch the trains that came in and out of a rail yard. Before long, they hopped their first train.
“I was excited to ride a freight train,” Hamby said. “It seemed like a really cool idea…but there are a lot of ups and downs because you don’t want anyone to know you’re there. You don’t want to get arrested, so you have to be elusive.”
The first ride was uneventful. They jumped into an open boxcar, but it stayed in the yard, and they eventually fell asleep. When it finally started moving, their excitement began to build again, only to have the train move painfully slow before stopping for good in Kentucky. But this first ride became a stepping-stone and soon they were hopping trains on a regular basis.
The two often talked about wanting to see the west coast and began to plan a cross-country venture. They figured out which trains were the “hot shots,” trains that move quickly across the country, in the hopes of catching one that would take them to Washington state. Soon enough, they found a train that they had to catch on the fly.
Richard jumped on first, disappearing into a train car. Hamby caught the next car, but quickly realized the train car Richard had picked was the deadly “suicide well” -- a car that looks ride-able but has no bottom. It simply drops to the tracks. Hamby quickly jumped off the train to find out what happened.
“I paced up and down the tracks looking for body parts, or a shoe, or some sort of indication of what happened to him,” Hamby said, but he found nothing.
Hamby decided to take the next train west, hoping Richard had realized the mistake and switched cars. Hamby hopped a train headed to Seattle, but his troubles weren’t over yet.
When he got to Minot, N.D. he had to switch trains. Then the rain began.
“I got into this really bad rain storm, and there were lightning bolts striking all around me,” Hamby said.
He became fearful when he realized he was sitting in a train car made entirely of metal, but all he could do was throw an old blue tarp around himself and wait it out.
Luckily, he made it to Seattle and found his friend alive and well.
Lessons along the way
Hamby continued to ride trains and hitchhike throughout the country for the next three years, visiting a total of 42 states, and learning a lot about life along the way.
“What was most surprising was who was actually helpful and who wasn’t,” Hamby said.
The people who helped Hamby the most were those who were extremely poor themselves. In Winslow, Ariz., Hamby said there were several Native Americans standing outside a convenience store who were clearly living in poverty.
“As soon as they saw us, they came up and gave us their food stamps,” Hamby said. He tried to give them back to the men, but they insisted.
“It was people like that who were willing to go out of their way to help you, more than the Salvation Army or local church,” Hamby said. “Because they know what it’s like to not have anything.”
Hamby was also surprised at how many people underestimated the difficulties of being homeless.
“People would always shout, ‘Get a job!’” Hamby said. “But the thing they didn’t realize is the homeless don’t have an address to put on an application; they don’t have a phone for employers to call; they don’t have an alarm clock to get up for work, and they can’t wash their clothes to look presentable, so how are they going to get a job?”
After three long years of living on the streets, Hamby’s health began to suffer, and he began to grow weary of the violence and poverty that surrounded him on a daily basis.
He traveled to State College, where his old friend Richard was living. At first, Hamby lived behind shopping complexes, in abandoned fraternity houses and in baseball dugouts. He finally found a temporary home in his friend’s basement. From there, he landed a job and then an apartment.
After years of struggle, Hamby had finally gotten back on his feet, and several years later, he did what years before he could only have dreamt of doing. He applied to Penn State University.
Hamby is now a Penn State student majoring in Agroecology, making the dean’s list with an impressive 3.89 GPA, all while working full-time as a production manager for Tait Farm Foods. It is a struggle for him every day to accomplish his goals, but he perseveres. He has experienced something few other have experienced, the feeling of losing it all and hitting rock bottom. Now, his goal is to make it to the top.
Sleeping on the streets
When Hamby wasn't riding the rails, he was forced to sleep in some seedy places. In this video, Hamby discusses some of the places he had to spend the night.