Kent State professor writes book on being exiled in America


Kent State Assistant Professor of Sociology, Christopher Dum.

Samantha Ickes

When money gets tights and circumstances change, some individuals and families find themselves living out of a roadside motel. These motels serve as a home while they try to get back on their feet. Sometimes, the rooms they stay in may not even have a kitchen or hot water to take showers in.

Christopher Dum, an assistant professor of sociology at Kent State, took a closer look at the way these people live their lives out of motel rooms. He rented a room for a year and lived between it and his own apartment so he could get to know the people living in this situation. He published the result of his year-long study this past year in a book called “Exiled in America: Life on the Margins in a Residential Motel.”

Dum said the idea transpired from work he did as a graduate student. Dum comes from a background in criminal justice, and he became interested in knowing where sex offenders live after they are released from prison.

“I was really interested in the experiences of registered sex offenders who come out of prison and what they have to do to find places to live,” Dum said. “There are laws in place that restrict where they’re allowed to stay.”

Dum found a motel, which he refers to as the Boardwalk Motel in the book, where sex offenders are often housed upon release from prison.

“I became interested in that location, and then I sort of realized more than just sex offenders were staying there,” Dum said. “There were a really wide variety of different people living on … welfare and things like that.”

Dum knew the best way to capture the lives these people led was to immerse himself into their world. By spending as much time at the motel as possible, Dum felt he could truly represent what life was like living in the Boardwalk Motel.

The book, which Dum said is an academic work, uses fake names for the people he writes about. It’s told through first-person narrative, and describes what his experience was like getting to know the individuals he met.

As people began to recognize Dum from seeing him around the motel, they began to tell him about their stories. Dum spent ample time with the motel residents in order to learn what their everyday life is like.

Once Dum gained their trust, he was able to observe them on a day-to-day basis—something he said he might not have been able to do if he hadn’t immersed himself into the lifestyle.

“My question going into this was: is this a good solution to homelessness?” Dum said. “The major takeaway, for me, is that … this is a horrible mandate solution for homelessness. People should not be asked to establish a home in a motel. It just doesn’t provide enough for people.”

According to a Wall Street Journal article from August 2016, about 4,000 New Yorkers are homeless and living in 46 different motels around the city. Earlier this year in January, 1,000 homeless people were living in eight different motels.

Dum said people end up living in motel rooms for many different reasons. Their apartment building may have caught fire, and they were temporarily placed in the motel. Others found themselves without a home and had nowhere else to go.

Some have minimum wage jobs and are paying up to $820 a month for these motel rooms, which Dum said weren’t suitable for a long-time living situation.

These individuals find themselves stuck in a cycle because they have enough money to pay rent, but not enough money to save for a better place to live.

“It’s a real big struggle,” Dum said. “The problem is we have these people paying out of pocket at a day-to-day basis. You’re basically stuck there because once you end up there, it’s really hard to leave. While I could not imagine if this was my real home, there are people there that that is their real home. Everyday they come home to that.”

Samantha Ickes is a features correspondent, contact her at [email protected].