Homelessness: Moving Around and About

Geoffrey DeVerteuil. Homelessness Handbook. Editor: David Levinson & Marcy Ross. Berkshire Publishing, 2007.

Human mobility occurs on many scales. It ranges from migration, which involves a permanent or semipermanent change of residence, to everyday, short-term, often cyclical circulation such as commuting from home to work. A high rate of mobility has traditionally been a defining characteristic of homeless individuals—from the continental wanderings of nineteenth-century “vagrants,” “transients,” and “tramps” to the involuntary displacement of the “new homeless” from prime public urban spaces in the 1990s. In the words of Jon May (2000, 737), “It is clear that the experience of homelessness cannot be considered apart from the experience of movement—of varying kinds and at a variety of scales.”

Geographers, sociologists, anthropologists, and others have focused on a variety of related topics. The focus here is on three key issues: the changing ways in which academics have defined homelessness in terms of mobility, the links between homeless mobility and survival, and the methodological challenges researchers face in understanding these patterns.

Mobility as a Defining Feature of Homelessness: A Historical Review

For 150 years, academics have considered mobility as a key feature of homelessness, often discerning patterns and types of homelessness through this feature. Following these definitions over time offers a way to understand the shifting relationship between mobility and other conditions of homelessness.

Within the United States, the issue of homelessness in general, and homeless mobility in particular, became especially prominent in the 1860s and 1870s. The disruptive effects of the Civil War, large-scale immigration, boom-bust economic cycles, the growing popularity of the railroad and the subsequent opening of the Western frontier—all created a highly visible group of homeless individuals, primarily men, alternatively known as “hoboes,” “tramps,” “bums,” and the like. Although definitions varied, all focused on mobility and work: “The hobo was a migratory worker, the tramp a migratory non-worker and the bum a non-migratory non-worker” (Cresswell 2001, 49). These designations were frequently conflated, however, as the “tramp crisis” of the 1870s produced a strong moral, social, and legal backlash against anyone who appeared transient. Transiency became a crisis in the 1870s, a result of growing numbers of highly mobile and seemingly unattached men. This backlash was based on the widely held perception that “mobility appears to involve a number of absences—the absence of commitment, attachment and involvement—a lack of significance. The more widespread associations of mobility with deviance, shiftlessness and disrepute come to mind” (Cresswell 2001, 15).

With the gradual closing of the Western frontier, homeless individuals began to pool in the nation’s large urban centers in areas known as “skid rows.” By the early 1900s, the tramp problem was coming under intense academic scrutiny, concomitant with the rise of the social sciences. The most prominent of these early efforts to categorize the homeless was Nels Anderson’s The Hobo (1923), in which Anderson employed two familiar criteria: mobility and work. To measure mobility, he used Chicago’s “main stem” (skid row) area as a point of reference as a major node for nationwide and regional movements. Five categories emerged: the seasonal worker, hobo, tramp, bum, and homeguard. The first three were particularly mobile. The seasonal worker moved between summer labor in the countryside and winters in the city. The hobo was less temporally and spatially consistent, usually moving wherever and whenever employment was available. The tramp simply enjoyed the experience of traveling. Homeguard refers specifically to men who rarely left Hobohemia (another term for skid row) and worked intermittently. Many were former migratory men who decided to “settle down.” The bum was not only immobile, but congenitally unemployable and without any visible means of support.

Anderson’s criteria would shape subsequent categorizations of the homeless, many of which became inordinately complex and convoluted as social conditions shifted. By the 1950s skid rows no longer contained highly mobile, employable men; rather, they were primarily inhabited by a dwindling pool of immobile men who cycled between the street and a host of local institutions, including mission halls, jails, and shelters. Indeed, the defining features of homelessness were changing. Academics’ earlier focus on mobility—especially work-related interurban migration from city to city—now shifted to personal disaffiliation at the intraurban level, within a given city.

By the early 1980s, the composition of America’s homeless population was again changing with the rising tide of newly homeless groups, including women, teenagers, de-institutionalized patients, Vietnam veterans, and a greater proportion of minorities. For instance, many newly released mental patients drifted towards inner-city zones of dependency, where they found a reservoir of services, cheap housing, and a modicum of social acceptance. However, as the ranks of the “new homeless” swelled, traditional skid rows were coming under attack, threatened by urban redevelopment and the demolition of affordable single room occupancy (SRO) housing. With the physical erosion and outright dissolution of many skid rows, the new homeless became less rooted and more mobile, and thus more visible.

Their new visibility in public spaces generated a virulent backlash among other citizens. By the 1990s policymakers were passing a series of antihomeless ordinances, against panhandling, sleeping outdoors, and erecting encampments, for example. These were designed to reduce the presence of the homeless in prime urban spaces, either through outright banishment or, at the very least, physical containment. As Mike Davis (1990, 236) noted, the backlash in Los Angeles “turned the majority of the homeless into urban bedouins. They are visible all over Downtown, pushing a few pathetic possessions in purloined shopping carts, always fugitive and in motion, pressed between the official policy of containment and the increasing sadism of Downtown streets.”

In-depth research into the movement patterns of homeless individuals in Los Angeles suggested that those patterns were fairly predictable, not always voluntary, and had less to do with individual preferences than with the availability and location of resources. Moreover, mobility was shown to be linked to a person’s coping abilities and awareness of “homeless social connections, the availability of urban resources, and the broader contextual factors that shape access to welfare benefits, jobs, housing, and other critical human services” (Wolch, Rahimian and Koegel 1993, 159). Less systematic studies of mobility also flourished during this period, part of a surge in general academic interest in homelessness. These studies related to a wide variety of issues: the ways in which mobility fostered social networks; how mobility intersects with resistance to the social control of institutions; and the relationship between mobility and broader geographies of service provision, including public shelters.

Far from random, homeless mobility in the 1990s was largely shaped by the geography of human-service providers such as drop-in centers, shelters, and transitional housing. The destruction of many skid row districts notwithstanding, most homeless services are channeled to poorer, heterogeneous inner-city neighborhoods through opposition from wealthier, better organized communities As a matter of survival, many homeless people continue to tie their movements to these service locations, whether on a permanent or cyclical basis.

A Matter of Survival

How does mobility help or hinder everyday survival for the homeless? Is it a positive or a negative in the struggle to secure basic needs such as shelter, food, health care, hygiene, privacy, and security? According to Rahimian, Wolch, and Koegel (1992), as well as Dear, Wolch, and Wilton (1994), mobility serves as an adaptive coping mechanism, a way to escape stress, boost material well-being, and improve quality of life. Moreover, mobility is positive in that it represents some measure of autonomy. For instance, Jacqueline Wiseman (1970) noted that in the 1960’s, skid row men creatively used mobility to stitch together a stable mode of survival. On the interurban scale, the 1996 National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients found that 46 percent of its clients had moved since their current homeless episode began. Most relocated in a deliberate effort to improve their lives—to look for a job or share quarters with friends or relatives, for example (Interagency Council 1999, 4-1).

Conversely, other researchers have noted the disadvantages of frequent mobility. Especially when involuntary, moving can drain a person’s energy and coping resources, leaving insufficient time to satisfy basic needs such as medical attention. Erratic and continuous moves can isolate and alienate the person from any sort of stable residential community. Individuals may also run the risk of becoming dependent on institutions. As they “develop routines based on the availability of services…[they become] accommodated to street life rather than directed toward disengagement [from it]” (Snow and Anderson 1993, 283). In these cases, individual agency is trumped by the challenges of the larger environment.

In the worst cases, the ill effects of hyper-mobility are combined with institutional dependency, leaving homeless mentally ill people cycling across a variety of unrelated, arbitrary, and inappropriate settings. They find themselves drifting through scattered venues that make a proper continuum of care impossible. Worse, these people may entirely lack the treatment they need, whether for substance abuse, mental health problems, or both. As institutionalized cycling becomes a way of life, the homeless become institutionally dependent, adapting to the rhythms of these settings. For instance, some homeless will adapt to the short- and long-term time-limits of shelters, ensuring that stay the maximum amount of time, and return as soon as possible to the same shelter (usually a year later). The accumulation of this trend may be seen in the fact that the Los Angeles County Jail was arguably the largest mental “hospital” in the United States in 1998.

Methodological Challenges

The study of homeless mobility is inherently challenging: movements that are difficult to track are even more difficult to understand. The research literature, therefore, traditionally relies heavily on cross-sectional surveys— those based on a single point in time. But such surveys tend to obscure the fact that homelessness may not be an end state, but rather a condition through which individuals move in and out. Longitudinal approaches—those spanning a longer time period—are better suited to the task. Not only can researchers track movements over time, rather than relying on retrospective accounts, they can also build more effective research relationships. More so than a “snapshot” interview, a longitudinal approach helps situate a person’s decisions, strategies, and patterns as part of a larger suite of coping techniques. Further, a longitudinal approach can help place a given encounter or event in a more meaningful context. For example, what might initially appear to be self-defeating behavior can be placed into a broader context of long-term survival. Unfortunately, longitudinal methods are time consuming and expensive, and attrition can be a major impediment.

Using longitudinal tracking methods in settings ranging from shelters to street corners, Snow and Anderson (1993) were able to better understand the relationship between mobility and various stages in personal adaptations to homelessness. For the recently homeless, mobility only deepened their disorientation. But for those who had adapted to the streets, mobility represented a lifestyle—whether for tramps (highly migratory and independent) or bums (more stationary and dependent). Using a qualitative, biographical approach to his study of homeless men, May focused on the generally ignored issues of “how much or why homeless people move or what the experience of such movement might be” (2000, 755). In his findings, May revealed the different meanings of mobility, ranging from homelessness as a transitional state to the situation where the individual sees mobility as entirely natural, having never really had a “home” to begin with.

Research Directions

While much about homeless mobility has been examined, there remain a variety of unmet research needs. First, there is a critical lack of large-scale, longitudinal data in both intraurban settings, for those who drift within a single city, and especially in interurban settings, for those who move from city to city. Second, relatively little is known about what motivates homeless peoples’ movement patterns, how they experience those patterns, and how they might differ by race, gender, age, and mental ability. Finally, the public costs of involuntary mobility among the homeless—especially when it involves incarceration and/or hospitalization— need to be systematically traced.