A NEW WAY OF LIFE? HOMELESS MILLENNIALS ARE TRANSFORMING HOBO CULTURE BY BETSY ISAACSON 

Image: http://video.newyorker.com

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The vagabond ecosystem is changing thanks to cellphones, Wi-Fi, Craigslist and Google Maps.MICHAEL PORTUGAL
On Reddit, he’s /u/huckstah, an administrator on /r/vagabond, a subreddit with nearly 10,000 members—many of them identify as “homeless”—who trade skills and stories. On “the road and the rails,” he’s Huck, and even after we speak twice by cellphone, he tells me he’d prefer I don’t print his real name. “People say, ‘Well, you chose to become homeless.’ But that’s wrong,” he says. Huck says he’s been a hobo for upward of 11 years and started hopping trains and hitching rides at 18. “I did not choose to become homeless. If you want to say I chose to become homeless and sleep on the streets, really all I have to say is fuck you. You’ve never experienced it.”

Or maybe you have experienced it, thanks to the recent Great Recession that caused a spike in homelessness—especially for families—with its tidal wave of foreclosures. And if you have, there’s a good chance you were probably one of the many homeless with a mobile device, a sight that has become increasingly common. The ubiquity of cheap phones and even cheaper data has prompted even longtime homeless to join the growing ranks of people with a cell connection but no house. “The day I started on the road, I had a flip phone, an iPod, a TomTom GPS, an atlas, a laptop, and free Wi-Fi wasn’t very easy to find,” says a medic who’s been a hobo for four years and asks me to identify him as “Nuke.” (“I have a pretty decent amount of training and experience in treating combat trauma.”) He now lives out of a ’91 Ford pickup and says, “I have a smartphone, a laptop, and free Wi-Fi is everywhere.”

The rise of the mobile Internet has made a hobo’s life easier, Nuke says. But when I ask Huck about how he and fellow travelers use their smartphones, I get the sense that even for the digitally connected homeless, life is far from easy. “I keep my phone off a lot, or in airplane mode,” he says, “because we can only charge up for a short time—maybe once a day, or sometimes it will be two to three days between charges, maybe an hour of charge.” For Huck and his fellow itinerants, smartphone usage is measured in instants. “We check Google Maps and then we turn it off, or we make a quick phone call and then we turn it off.”

That’s a pity because a smartphone can be even more useful for a homeless person than it is for those with a regular roof over their heads. Case in point: Smartphones provide on-the-go weather forecasts, convenient for an everyday life but essential for a homeless one. “You have to keep an eye on the weather when you’re living outside,” says Mike Quain, a 22-year-old busker and percussionist. “If it’s too cold somewhere, we’ll get south any way we can. And no one likes to be surprised by rain. Rain isn’t nearly as fun when you don’t have a dry place to go.”

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HOMELESS MILLENNIALS

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