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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Inside The World Of ‘Travelers,’ Who Leave Home, Live As Squatters


In 2010, eight young people died in a warehouse fire in New Orleans. They were squatters — kids who had left their homes and families to hop on trains like modern day hobos.

The deaths drew attention to the lives of what are called travelers.

In The Boston Review, journalist Danelle Morton explores this lifestyle, one her daughter Marissa Spoer was attracted to and also experienced.

Marissa Spoer, who dropped out of school to play music as a traveler. (Danelle Morton)

Spoer, a musician, dropped out of college to play music as a traveler. She says she wasn’t running from her mom and dad, she was running toward something.

“I don’t feel like people should be contained like an animal, if I’m of age,” Marissa told Here and Now‘s Robin Young.

“I felt dulled artistically at that school and I felt inspired by a countrywide music tour that I was embarking on. I’ve had a lot of guilt about what my parents were going through because they were worried,” she said.


  • Danelle Morton, mother of Marisa Spoer
  • Marissa Spoer, a musician who dropped out of college to play music as a traveler

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • J Frog

    College?  Paying back any student loans?

    • butterfly

      i am another mother of a son who left for this lifestyle. very tragic. pray for him. i feel he is lost and possibly sick. and yes he was a sensitive person and smart as a whip. but i feel as if it was a cry for help and the reason he left was he didnt know what was wrong so couldnt ask. but of course i dont understand. i do know his family’s lives are on hold. and i hope people are kind to him every night when i lay my own head down. i hope one day he finds a way to ask. but as someone who was once so capable i am not sure that was his best thing. and i suppose when people become sick and know they are whether it is some sort of addiction or mental illness or an emotional condition, people become defensive. and do not trust for help. it is sort of a viscious circle.

  • http://www.maryjones.us tlachtga

    How is this at all different from what young adults have done for decades, even centuries? “Go west young man”? Huck Finn? Jack Kerouac? Hobos? This isn’t unusual, this isn’t new, we just live in such an over-protective society that we’re easily scandalized that people who are old enough to vote want to go off and travel in a cheap–if sometimes dangerous, but then, just leaving the house can be dangerous–way. If they’re in college, they’re not kids–they’re adults. This isn’t at all strange.

  • http://www.maryjones.us tlachtga

    Is this newsworthy because women are doing this now? Or is this just another helicopter-parenting  freakout over “kids” who are legally adults?

    • http://twitter.com/saradonn Sara Donn

      It is newsworthy because many people aren’t aware of squatters’ lives. It sounds to me they are shedding light on a relatively secret, hidden lifestyle.

      • http://www.maryjones.us tlachtga

         But my point is that it isn’t hidden or secret–it’s nothing new.

  • http://www.fibrowitch.net Jan Dumas

    Thanks guys I needed the laugh.

  • http://twitter.com/saradonn Sara Donn

    Of course it isn’t, but that doesn’t mean people have in-depth knowledge about it. I think they are trying to increase awareness.

  • Anonymous

    I’ll take a few minutes today to thank my children, once again, for their maturity, for their social responsibility and social justice commitment through their jobs, and for all they do as parents, spouses, friends, and as our children.

  • EricM

    Teenagers who leave high school, regardless of their reasons, are doing themselves a disservice.  I was a ward of the court, then adopted and many times felt like running away but I stuck it out.  I joined the USCG after graduation and now have a successful career, and a wonderful family.  My sister ran away and ended up a “Mule” and at this point I don’t know if she is still alive.  Stay in school!  Eighteen is young enough to strike out on your own.

    • guest

      I agree with your statement but she dropped out of college, not High School.

  • Ginny Morgan

    I was a “traveler” from 1994-1999, starting with the tail end of the Grateful Dead touring phenomenon.  I was not from a broken home or underprivileged in any way, but rather the opposite. I sought a simple life where people are welcomed & accepted no matter what they look like, where they come from, how much money they had or who their parents are.  I LOVED living out of a backpack, without money and trusting my friends who really were my family.  I traveled back and forth across the US numerous times over five years, have seen every state in the continental US, and learned lessons about life that could never be taught in a college.  I ate out of dumpsters and received spare change from strangers.  My parents, too, were worried.

    Now (12 years later) I have my Master’s degree in accounting and two beautiful daughters.  My parents are thankful that I’ve settled down, but also aware of the life lessons and amazing experiences that I was able to afford through my traveling.  I think they are even a bit envious that I have had these experiences, and I am PROUD to have had this journey.

    • Naysayer

      So, you’re saying you felt like you weren’t welcomed or accepted no matter what? That you didn’t trust your family, who apparently gave you a non-broken and privileged life, as much as you trusted your friends? The exception to the rule that travelers are dysfunctional? I don’t think so. Well-adjusted people don’t eat out of dumpsters or live on spare change from strangers.

      • Alex

        And who are you again?  There is absolutely not an iota demonstrated in your comment that you are, in fact, qualified to assess the mental health and well-being of…anyone.

      • alex

        thats not true! well adjusted people might stand politically against the waste in america. not speaking for the spare changing! but dumpstering happens all the time, even some families. Food not Bombs, is located in most big cities and is a “bum” feed outside that is made with dumpstered food. it is more political to some people.

      • alex

         theres two alexs apparently

      • CASnyder

        My brother volunteered a year at a CWHouse that offered hospitality to the homeless & ran a soup kitchen. They knew which businesses in town would look the other way after putting things in their dumpster and what the schedule of inventory & “tossing”of the out-of-date foods was. Most of the time they were able to get the perishable foods while they were still cold from the refrigerators & freezers. And yes they took donations of all sort from strangers, though most of the money went to feed & house others in need, not the workers. The workers were all “well-adjusted” people – they had to be in order to give so much to the needs of others and have very little left for themselves. My brother is an engineer now and his farm hosts lots of rescued animals (his wife is a vet tech), but he still will do a “dumpster dive” if he spots something particularly good. You would rather good food go into landfills while poor folks starve on the streets? It is illegal for businesses to donate out of date food directly to kitchens for the poor- they have to put it in the dumpsters. I’m glad you are comfortable in your righteousness and hope you never find out the hard way what it is like to live without a reliable stream of income.

    • Questioner

      Ginny, are you an oogle like Schmoops said above?

  • lk

    Thank-you for this article.  I live in Portland OR and see young homeless people quite often and have always wondered, why.

  • Earlson69

    As tragic as this is, it’s no more tragic than the others that die in house fires every day.

  • Wistaman

    traveler sounds like a euphemism for hobo

  • Victoria Elkins

    I just listened to the Traveller story. I understand the search for experience, knowledge and self-expression. My question – you said the most often communicate via twitter and FB. Who pays for the phone and data plans? And their insurance (assuming the families are able)? If they want to be free, then be really free. A very tragic story about the NO FIRE and the deaths of 8 kids.

    • CASnyder

      Their ISP is probably the free wireless hot spots in town (or any urban wireless networks that don’t use a password to curb unauthorized useage). I’m pretty sure most don’t have insurance, and don’t expect that will change even though it is now illegal to skip out on that, thanks to B.O.

  • restaurateur

    As a mother and  person involved in the hospitality business I felt compelled one hot July early evening to inquire of two “travelers” if they’d like a hot shower, laundry and a home cooked meal. They at 1st were hesitant but I assured I was only offering haven for an evening, they came along.  After pitching a tent in the back yard they reveled in showers, clean clothes and helped pick vegetables for dinner. 
    We had a delightful meal together, they explained  the life they were leading and I have to say (being in my mid fifties) I was momentarily envious.   These were two articulate, bright meaningful people who were on their way the next morning along with their dog, tea tree oil and a little cash.  This took place in a small New England “City”, I’m so glad to have met and spoken with these two adventurers and to this day wonder whatever happened to them and hope they called the mothers as I asked them to do!  I know one did because the mother contacted me immediately after and I think we both cried for a second to have connected in such a way.  This is living….

  • Shmoops

    10 years ago..   an Oogle was someone that was a trust fund kid.. that was just living the traveling life JUST to do it.. not because they had to.. and for that they were severely disrespected. 
    These ” kids” that do have to live this life aren’t young bums that become  old bums because THEY DIE. 

    After years of traveling I just couldn’t take it any more. I was sick of not knowing where I was going to sleep..  I was sick of sticking a needle in my arm.. I was sick of watching people die LITERALLY right in front of my face.

    So.. although spare changing was an easy way out.. I chose to fix ties with my family ( which was VERY difficult) I lived on my sisters couch, which I know she HATED and I”ve since went from living out of my packpack 10 years ago to owning and house and having a career. 
    I’m not really thrilled with the article… like majority of travelers are oogle kids with parents DYING to have them home..   If thats the case, screw them.    
    But it’s not the case. They are thrown away and are living in the gutters until they DIE for a reason so all you can really do it throw them a beer and hope your child doesn’t because an oogle.

    • Shmoops

      become* an oogle 

  • Cyclops46

    I believe they’re called runaways needing social services and counseling, its not a fun adventure.  Please! Let’s have responsible reporting.

    • http://twitter.com/PikeyJim MALALAPIPE

      you mean reprogramming, leave them be, if they need help they will ask

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matthew-Waldrop/1423567286 Matthew Waldrop

    I lived this lifestyle for along time. I have kids now, I don’t live this way anymore. But I have a lot to say on this topic. I don’t think there was any point where I ‘changed’. I think that despite whatever background you come from or whether or not your younger life was traumatic is rather here nor there. I don’t think you can generalize a group like that or any group for that matter. One thing that I do know is that in the nineties I did not  identify with many people in the subculture if you can call it that. There is a serious problem with some people I was friends with in regards to self destruction. Heavy drug abuse and loss of ones life, although I know that most of the people I have associated with that went down this destructive path were extremely passionate and intelligent people. I know that in this subculture there is a judgement and a general discontent for our society  and a belief that the society itself is broken and a need to withdraw from it for whatever reason. A great number of people I have know however were extremely talented either musically, artistically and highly creative and yearning for a change in our world, wanting a better world. now whether living this type of lifestyle contributes to any type of recognized change I do not believe this to be the case. But in my own life my struggle to remain independent be myself and not conform to society or conform to another has left me better off. I am an entrepreneur, I am an artist and I have a thriving business that I raise my family from. I do not think that I would have the independence and freedom in my adult life  that I now have if I did not come from the life I have led. I regret nothing. I do feel that the deaths of so many I have known in the past because their self destruction overcame them before they sorted themselves out. I don’t think that as a topic a pat answer about this  exists.   Our society is not perfect by any means and its shortcomings as a whole are reflected in its youth. I do not wish for my daughters to go down this type of path. Hopefully I can teach them how to be happy and free. Truly free. If you are wondering who I am and what I do. Google me.  

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/BO6QIGTNH2KLDXZWTWY2DWYO3Y Sasquatch

    You’re going to need another noun.  Travelers is already taken and the culture while quite active in North America isn’t that of runaway and throwaway squatter kids.

    • Anonymous

      My my, a snooty Gypsy. I didn’t know they existed. Thank you for educating me.

      • RRedd

        Infidelle – Gypsy is a derogatory for Roma people.  Travellers are a separate group that live mostly in the UK.  They both have languages very distinct from the area that they reside.   Call me a snooty American.  I agree that  the term travelers is misused in this article.

        • Anonymous

          The English language is a wonderful thing. If you open your dictionary or just google the word, you will see that “traveler” can mean a wide variety of things, many of which apply to these youth. And I didn’t mean to put down Roma, just this fellow who clearly sees these travelers as “trash”, which is ironic, considering most Europeans see Roma the same way. Like “Indian”, “Gypsy” started as a misnomer and is now embraced by many who claim that identity.

        • Anonymous

          P.S….I know who this guy is, as he made the same comment on fb. According to him, “traveler” is a term that applies exclusively to Roma. So I’ll leave you two to duke it out about the one and only proper use of the term.

  • Hobo Queen Sunrise, 2004-2005

    I enjoyed this story as I know many of these travelers. The National Hobo Convention held annually in Britt, IA hosts many of them each year. As a National Hobo Queen, I want to say that many of these travelers have become part of my family. Just as in any other subculture, there are people who struggle with addictions, the affects of abuse or mental illness, but this does not take away the value of the individual and what he or she has to offer this world. As my Hobo King, Adman, says, “We all matter.” 

    My life was changed significantly when I first attended the hobo convention in 2001. I was a college graduate, professional librarian, a homeowner and yet something was missing in my life. As I met the hobos and travelers, I connected very deeply with them as people in search of authenticity and the ways to live out their individuality. I am very grateful for all of the things that I have learned from these individuals and I share my story and that of the American Hobo through music, poetry and stories in many venues. I invite you to learn more about the hobo and travelers by visiting http://www.hobo.com and searching for “Fran’s Hobo Page.” There is a lot of information available at these sites. I also invite you to attend the annual Hobo Convention held the second weekend of August each year in Britt, IA. There is something for everyone, including children–the Hobo Museum, music, parades, and the election of the Hobo King and Queen.

    It is important that I note that we do not condone train hopping as it is dangerous and illegal.
    National Hobo Queen 2004-2005

  • alex

    I traveled for three years, left after my first year of college. my best friend john died in that fire, I talked to him two days before he died and told him it wasnt very smart to put a fire inside the warehouse! i once stayed there for a couple months actually before him. the whole thing is horribly tragic.John was a extremely funny and smart guy who came from a loving family just like me and most my traveler friends. LIke marissa said though everyone is different. but were defiently not all junkies or idiots, ( which most people label as) but just people with a different view on life’s philosphys. and community. I have had a amazing life so far, and am blessed to have meet such interesting and talented people :)

  • seeking

    Let’s hear from kids who travel like this and are able to have an adult life without help from their parents.  Is this really being independent? Aren’t there better ways to be creative and helpful to others.  Don’t kids even young adults have some obligation to their families?

  • mizbizz

    These comment are hi-larious. I agree with Schmoops,” Trust fund kiddie” is this stuff.  Its always funny to see how people are like ” I was this” ” I did this” . best comment here ever is “google me” . 

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matthew-Waldrop/1423567286 Matthew Waldrop

      What’s not funny is my good friend Willy, DEAD FROM SPEED BALL and ALCOHOL @ C-squat. Micah, Run over by freight train while drunk, J.P. dead from OD, J.P’s brother Jamie, dead from suicide after J.P.’s death, the list goes on and on, that’s even sadder. My point is that I am proud of myself and I  have not compromised my life or ‘conformed’ to society I continue to live by my own terms. People that live this type of lifestyle or feel compelled  because they don’t like or hate the world around them don’t have to go down such a self destructive path. There are alternatives. I know one thing. I have had a positive impact on people and changed there lives for the better because I have passed on my experiences on a person to person level. Also…… Kids change everything. If you have a kid and you think that it is OK to live in a van or in a squat or on the road. It’s not. I do have one regret for the lifestyle “I lived”. My Mother. I regret the unnecessary pain and hardship she went through after an already hard experience she had raising us. I only thought of myself, I should have thought more about the people that really cared for me in this world.     

  • Sohokat

    My son the traveler…

    My son Rory has been a
    traveler for almost five years. It started in 2006 after he dropped out
    of college and, after trying to succeed in a franchised house painting
    company that basically ripped off the young people working hard to make
    work, he decided to go to NOLA as a volunteer in a community soup
    kitchen. There he learned about living on the streets free from concerns
    about money or societal strictures. He did that volunteer work for
    about a year and a half, first in NO, then down in Buras, ground zero
    for Katrina. He grew to loathe NO because of the violence and drunkeness
    that plagued the streets there.

    Listening to the story on Here and Now, I could run down a checklist
    about my son. Hostile divorce – check. Sensitive and smart but unable to
    conform in the classroom despite trumping standardized tests like the
    SATs. Check. Dreamy, friendly personality, check. As a toddler, he was
    never clingy but always ready to wander away exploring. (Like his mother
    who scared her own mother by wandering from home many times at age 3.)
    He says he just gets restless being any one place for six weeks.

    I spent a night haunted in terror in my warm bed after he called from
    Colorado, his voice shaking with cold. I tried to get him a motel room
    but they wouldn\’t take my credit card on the phone. He said he\’d
    sleep in one of those display sheds in a Home Depot parking lot,
    reassuring me that he and his dog would get thru the night. I spent the
    night imagining him freezing to death in that shed and that no one would
    even find him there for days. But he called the next day, totally
    nonchalant, telling me there is no reason to worry about him.

    I’ve adapted to it now. I don’t worry about him anymore –
    obviously he can take of himself. He never rode the rails but instead
    hitchhiked back and forth across the country. He now owns a van and
    lives in that, driving to his next destination, which this month is
    Florida. I talked to him two days ago — he called using a friend’s
    phone and asked me to buy a new phone because he lost his. (He was
    always losing things as a kid.) I do draw a strict line about helping
    him out financially – a phone, yes. New clothes when I see him, yes.
    Cash, no.

    I haven’t seen him in almost a year, but will the last week in
    February when I”m going to Florida. He’s spending several weeks in
    the Ocala forest there with other travelers.

    To those parents whose kids have recently embarked on the traveler
    journey, be patient, be kind, and stay open to communication. My son and
    I are good friends. He calls me when he is lonely and loves to talk
    about old times. Maybe one day he\’ll settle down and even give me
    grandchildren. But in the meantime, he is a heartache to me, though I
    never let on, just lend him an ear when he calls. He obviously values my
    advice and treats me with great respect aside from the worry – but that
    has faded with time. Sometimes I don’t hear from him for weeks, and
    don’t know if he’s alive. He always apologizes for those lapses
    in communication.

    Like Marissa’s mother, I sometimes envy his freedom and wonder if I
    should just get in my car and take off for parts unknown myself. I’m
    now in my 60s and semi-retired, living in a little one-bedroom condo out
    in the sticks. Sadly, I no longer have a home he can return to even if
    he wanted to…

    — posted 01/25/2012 at 04:28 by kay fitz

    • Amanda

      Hello, my son has elected to live this lifestyle and I’m sick with grief and worry. How is your son? Did he ever decide to leave the lifestyle?

  • Alex Ashlock, Here and Now

    Thanks for all the thoughtful comments on this story. I’m glad I produced it.

  • Mark In FLorida

    Living like a hobo doesn’t seem like the sanest lifestyle.

    I had wanderlust too, waited until I graduated from college, took a leave of absence from my job, and bought a Greyhound Ameripass to travel through 49 states, Canada and Mexico, staying cheaply in campgrounds or hostels. Twelve years later, between jobs I travelled around the world similarly, living cheaply on my savings.Eating out of dumpsters and sleeping in abandoned buildings, yuck!

  • Shawnmsim

    This is an important show, but from my experience with a sister and niece who lived the traveler lifestyle, and having observed it for years in Seattle and Portland, it’s a sick, ugly world, where the young people literally live in filth, don’t work, are mostly junkies and sustain long-lasting damage to their phyiscal and mental health, if they don’t die. Sores, scabies, rashes, chronic coughs, so much more…I would NEVER romanticize the lifestyle or idealize it or recommend it. It’s not a postive choice, although it may seem that way when a family is in ruins, or you are being abused. Sparechanging degrades the self image and dignity of the individual, no matter how people deny it. I think that people who get out of it and build a good life after living this way are very much the exception.

  • Anonymous

    This is an important show, but from my experience with a sister and niece who lived the traveler lifestyle, and having observed it for years in Seattle and Portland, it’s a sick, ugly world, where the young people literally live in filth, don’t work, are often junkies and sustain long-lasting damage to their phyiscal and mental health, if they don’t die. Sores, scabies, rashes, chronic coughs, so much more…I would NEVER romanticize the lifestyle or idealize it or recommend it. It’s not a postive choice, although it may seem that way when a family is in ruins, or you are being abused. Sparechanging degrades the self image and dignity of the individual, no matter how people deny it. I think that people who get out of it and build a good life after living this way are very much the exception.

  • Sashagirl1221

    There are so many comments here from those who just want to judge without knowing the truth.  You presume travelers are hobos or are drug addicts or aren’t educated.  You presume anything at all without having met these people – these individuals who enjoy absolute freedom…in fact, the kind of freedom we all long for.  I know I do…a freedom where money isn’t valued, but only people and relationships are.  A life of ambition pursuing only those endeavors which makes you happy and not those which you “have” to pursue out of obligation or any other reason.  Don’t be blinded by your own way of life so much that you cannot appreciate the lives others choose to have and grow from. 

  • guest

    These “college drop out” travelers really piss me off. The rails have always been a refuge for those that can’t function in normal society. kids who abandon a life of privilege to go play hobo for a year or two do the entire subculture a disservice. They spread the misconception that every young traveler out there has a loving, middle class family waiting to welcome them home with open arms. For many travelers, this is not the case. A lot of these kids are trying to cope with trauma, abuse, neglect, mental illness, financial problems, and a non-existent support structure.

    • q

      Who’s to say college drop outs do not struggle with these things?
      It happens to be the age schizophrenia begins to show up for most people, and debt is certainly a financial problem.
      College isn’t just sold to the middle class, and you don’t need a home to go back to to attend classes.

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