Homeless Millennials Are Transforming Hobo Culture

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."

Piecemeal job-hunting sites like Craigslist are also required browsing if you're trying to make a living with no permanent place to call home. "For the past 100 years of this lifestyle in America, we found our jobs by following seasonal schedules and asking around for jobs at farmers' markets and farming supply stores, looking at job ads in newspapers, asking door-to-door," says Huck, adding that things are done very differently today. "I know thousands of hobos, and I don't know a single one that doesn't use Craigslist. It has completely changed how we find work."

The uses don't end there. Quain lists Google Maps, Couchsurfing.org and HitchWiki as "indispensable for vagabonds," while Nuke is still in awe of his smartphone's power. "I can fit an entire Radioshack from the '90s and then some in my pocket now."

Do a Google search for hobo culture and you'll find a lot about decline: the death of the working-class itinerant, the fall of the Depression-era drifter who never stopped drifting and the end of the heroic hobo celebrated by the likes of the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa. Vice released a documentary in 2012 called Death of the American Hobo. Those "graybeards," Nuke will tell you, are on the way out, but there isn't a dearth of culture left in their wake. Itinerants under the age of 35, he says, are forming their own kind of hobo society, one that overwhelmingly keeps up with technology and the times.

Where there used to be "jungles" and "hobohemias," now the Internet is the place present-day hobos—many of them millennials—go to connect and build a community. Sites little-known among the safely homed—DumpsterMap.com (a map of dumpsters ripe for diving), WiFiFreeSpot.com (a list of free Wi-Fi hot spots), On-Track-On-Line.com (railroad digital scanner frequencies)—are common resources, says Huck, for the vast majority of the digitally connected homeless community. "Prior to 2005 or so, all of this was simply done word-of-mouth, which is how it was done for over 100 years."

Huck is developing a new hobo code. In terms of the mythology surrounding the homeless, this is a big deal. Read about the romance of hobo culture and you'll find tons of talk about hobo symbols: a face on the side of a barn means the building's safe to sleep in; a caduceus on a doctor's door means the doctor will treat homeless. But for hobos nowadays, that's all outdated. Huck is part of a project to revamp the code completely and make it more useful for the digitally connected hobo by creating a new set of symbols for things such as "Wi-Fi networks and free outlets." When I ask if I can publish any of the symbols, though, Huck balks: When hobo codes become commonly known by regulars, it's a problem. "The codes are for us," he says, "and if other people see it, they could have clues to our secrets, and the next thing you know, that outlet that was accessible to hobos is now locked up or completely gone."

Conventional wisdom says the Internet and mobile technology keep us in our own little bubbles, isolated and insular. And while perhaps that's true for those with homes, Quain says it's the opposite for hobos. For the itinerant homeless, traveling in groups makes sense for a bevy of reasons: safety, company and economies of scale, especially when it comes to digital devices. "Lots of us travel in groups and share the expense of one phone," Quain says.

Luckily for Quain and his ilk, the ubiquity of the Internet is making finding fellow "travelers" easier than ever. The curious can head to SquatThePlanet.com and TravelersHQ.org to find vagabonds forming groups, swapping stories and arranging meetings.

Squatters have also enthusiastically embraced the mobile Internet as a means of sharing knowledge—often as a way to fight for their place amid urban real estate development. Frank Morales is a former priest, former squatter and current activist with C-Squat, a squatter advocacy organization in New York. The group works with New York's homeless men and women who park themselves in unused, often crumbling buildings and fix up the structures in an attempt to turn them into permanent homes.

To do this successfully, squatters need to learn how to bring amenities like electricity and running water into long-neglected buildings—and that, says Morales, is where the Internet becomes indispensable. Where before these skills needed to be shared in person (often at day-long squatter "skillshares"), now they can be digitally transmitted to anyone with a smartphone.

"Technology has really bridged the gap for a lot people around the world who are struggling for housing," says Morales. Nowadays, activist movements use mass-texting platforms to coordinate occupations of neglected buildings for squatters to use. They also keep email lists that track what squats are in danger and distribute information about new laws that affect squatting. Activist homeless have used digital connections to form a movement that believes, in Morales's words, "we have a moral obligation as individuals and as a society to support the occupation of spaces that are deteriorating and would otherwise just be rotting away to create housing."

While no comprehensive survey of homelessness and mobile ownership has been done in the United States, small surveys provide a glimpse of how the trends have grown. A study by the University of Sydney found that 95 percent of Australia's homeless own a mobile device, while Keith McInnes of the Boston School of Public Health's study of homeless veterans in Massachusetts found that 89 percent own at least one device. (In Australia, mobile penetration in the general population is 92 percent; in the U.S., it's 90.) However, "it's hard to do truly representative studies of homeless persons," says McInnes. For example, mentally ill homeless living under bridges, or in the woods, are probably less likely to have a cellphone and "less likely to be included in survey, because they are hard to find."

But as McInnes points out, those who do possess a cellphone have a tool both for survival—and for restoring their sense of humanity. While settled people are usually able to meet the wider world head-on and feel no shame, homelessness carries with it a pervasive, ugly stigma. "Having a mobile phone provides homeless persons with an outward-facing identity that can mask their homelessness," explains McInnes. "With a cellphone, people you call or who call you don't know you're homeless."

Some, like Huck, have taken this one step further, using their connectivity to promote their lives without a roof and walls as a source of pride. Near the end of our interview, Huck lets me know that he and several others on /r/vagabond have just been featured on an episode of Upvoted, Reddit's weekly podcast, where they're celebrated, not stigmatized.

"I've found a way to be homeless without starving or begging or sleeping in ditches," he says. "I've become a professional vagabond, and this is the lifestyle that I love."