Homelessness is a condition that afflicts over half a million Americans. Most homeless people are a victim of their circumstances, such as domestic abuse, drug addiction, and mental health issues. Many critics of the homeless claim that it is a choice. For the vast majority of those living on the streets, this is factually inaccurate.
A handful of homeless people, however, come from well-off families with plenty of opportunity. They see living on the fringe of society as a gift: A way to live freely and escape typical societal boundaries. You might see them playing guitar in the French Quarter, dreads in their hair, hoping to make a quick buck. You might find them squatting in one of the many abandoned houses across New Orleans. Or you might see them panhandling underneath the I10 interstate bridge, camping and fraternizing with the local homeless community. To them, how they live is a philosophical life choice.
They go by different names. Some call themselves gypsies, ignoring the fact that such a definition is based on race. Others call themselves travelers. They might define themselves as gutter punks, a tribute to the music tastes that are in-line with their ideologies. The most common name for them, perhaps, is transient. Regardless of the nomenclature, they can be identified based on how they look. This group is one that primarily consists of younger people. Their hair is long, tied up, dreadlocked, or kept underneath a flat-bill hat to keep grime out of their eyes. They might have freshly-done piercings that warrant a head turn. How could they afford these? Many sport tattoos, some in more traditional places like their arms, torso, back, or legs, others on their neck or face. Their clothes are more stylistic: a baggy Sex Pistols t-shirt and jeans; their less focused on comfort than others in their situation. A singular thread, however, runs throughout all of them: rebellion.
A transient named Dave has been living on the streets since he ran away from home at the age of sixteen. Now 23, he comes from an upper-middle class family, but he prefers not to identify with them and won’t reveal his last name. “It doesn’t really matter,” he says. “I don’t know, man, they (his parents) wanted me to go to college and be a lawyer or something.” He makes it abundantly clear that’s not who he is. Dave proudly identifies himself as “the opposite of a lawyer.” Anything bureaucratic shuts him down completely. “Look, I just don’t want to be that guy.” He ran away from home to escape pressures from his family, his teachers, and societal expectations.
An interesting question arises from of this line of thinking, however: What leads one to the lifestyle of a nihilist? Dave, like many in his situation, self-identifies as an anarchist. He quotes Karl Marx and analyzes his writings to philosophically justify anarchism. Dave’s reluctance to speak much about his family tells volumes about his thinking. Being on his own, perhaps Dave feels disillusioned with the system that others grew up in. The innate desire to be part of something bigger feels natural. And what closer bond can a person forge than that made of basic survival necessities? Eating, sleeping somewhere warm, and ensuring you make it through the next day is the ultimate bond. On the streets, homeless people have their own tumultuous community. Ironically, this amounts to their own kind of hierarchy.
Dave is currently in Asheville. He goes down south during the winter—sometimes Florida, sometimes Austin, sometimes New Orleans.
“New Orleans can be nice during the winter,” he says. “Plenty of squats and not too cold.”
He frequents abandoned houses whenever he finds himself in New Orleans. Overall, though, it’s a tough place for a transient to be. The views on the homeless, especially this kind of homeless person, among New Orleans residents tends to be more negative. In New Orleans more so than other cities, they are viewed as a nuisance. During Mardi Gras, the police try to clean them out when they are expecting a high volume of tourists to come in. “I don’t like it there for Mardi Gras. . . it’s so crowded, they’re stricter about the streets, the good squats get taken early.”
Dave’s plans for the future amount to his next meal and where he’ll be sleeping tonight. He doesn’t think through much of what he’s doing after that. Transients often only think in the short-term; the here and now is what’s important to them. Dave’s vague idea for his next few months include going out West.
“I’d like to make it to Seattle or California by the summer. It’s nice out there.” Dave has no intentions of changing his lifestyle anytime soon. “I’m pretty much happy with how I live. Maybe one day I’ll have to figure shit out, but for now, I’m good.” And that’s what matters to Dave: He is happy right now.