Contemporary American Transience: Nomadism and the Rationale for Travel among Homeless Youth and Young Adults

Abstract

Researchers of street life and homelessness in the United States continue to acknowledge the persistence of nomadism among the young and homeless, yet we know little about the role that travel plays in their lives or the meanings and motivations tied to this contemporary experience. Drawing on in-depth interviews, we compare homeless youth and young adults that travel with those that do not. Building on theories of social networks, social capital, stigma, and identity we explore demographic, behavioral, and philosophical similarities and differences between the two groups to understand the rationale for travel. For the young and homeless today, travel adds to the reserve of strategies to build and maintain network affiliations, acquire resources, and manage stigma and identity as they relate to the hobo and transient traditions of the past. However, when compared to their non-traveling homeless counterparts, travelers face new challenges that offset the purported benefits derived from being mobile.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    In this study, we use the term “traveler” to refer to those homeless youth and young adults that travel during period(s) when they are homeless. Researchers of homeless travelers define travel in a variety of ways, yet no standard methods exist for defining them (Martino et al. 2011). We define a homeless traveler as anyone who engages in continuous or intermittent inter-state travel for the purpose of exploration, work, or to connect with friends or relatives during an extended period of homelessness. We use the term “local” to refer to homeless youth and young adults that have not traveled while homeless and reside in one community, town, or city.

  2. 2.

    In one study of 419 homeless youth and young adults between the ages of 13 and 24, Martino et al. (2011) found that homeless travelers had an average age of 21 compared to non-travelers who had an average age of 20.

  3. 3.

    We opted for the term “youth and young adults” to describe this population of young people as their ages spanned from their teenage years, through their 20s, and early 30s. For reference, we note the age of each participant when citing interview quotes below and also provide a summary of participant ages in Table 1.

  4. 4.

    For the purpose of this study, we use the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services definition of homelessness which is any person “without permanent housing who may live on the streets; stay in a shelter, mission, single room occupancy facilities, abandoned building or vehicle; or in any other unstable or non-permanent situation” (National Health Care for the Homeless Council 2018). Our interpretation of “unstable or non-permanent housing” includes temporary housing and voluntary and involuntary doubled-up housing (Wright et al. 1998) as participants in our study lived in a number of these tenuous and temporary situations at the time of their interview, but continued to participate in street life. Travelers we interviewed did not have permanent housing but noted that they occasionally took time off from traveling by staying in one place for a temporary period of time with family or friends.

  5. 5.

    Doubled-up housing is a form of homelessness where people are taken in temporarily by friends or family members (Wright, Caspi, Moffitt, and Silva 1998).

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank David Smilde and the anonymous reviewers of this manuscript for their comments and suggestions for improvement. The authors would also like to thank Elyse Clark, Marni Finkelstein, Kevin Fitzpatrick, and Melissa Lavin for their guidance and thoughtful review of earlier versions of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Timothy Stablein.

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Stablein, T., Schad, L.A. Contemporary American Transience: Nomadism and the Rationale for Travel among Homeless Youth and Young Adults. Qual Sociol 42, 455–477 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-019-09423-1

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Keywords

  • Homelessness
  • Youth and young adults
  • Hobos
  • Nomads
  • Travelers
  • Networks
  • Stigma
  • Identity