Exiled In America: Life On The Margins In A Residential Motel

Author: Christopher P. Dum
Publisher: New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2016. 320p.
Reviewer: Terri Lewinson | January 2019

Sociologist Christopher Dum presents a compelling expose of turbulent transitions experienced by financially vulnerable residents of the Boardwalk motel. Few scholars have exposed the constellation of problems associated with motel life by individuals reentering society with criminal justice histories. After surviving imprisonment, it is not unusual for individuals to find themselves locked out of society with few, if any, employment and housing options. Therefore, moving into residential hotels has become the de facto rehousing strategy for former prisoners. Despite resilience and extreme resourcefulness, these individuals still find themselves subjected to various systems of societal oppression. From his social justice lens, Dum’s book provides a consummate case study of NIMBYism [Not In My Backyard] at its core.

Through his skillful narrative, the author details the birth of the modern motel and its contemptuous relationship with local planning boards and communities. He illuminates the sobering reality that impoverished and exiled clientele of these types of motels are often rebuked by middle class society as socially immoral. Dum’s focused attention on residential instability and marginalization is well-timed given problematic crises of mass incarceration and housing evictions in the United States.

After the author describes his carefully planned ethnographic study, he introduces the reader to the bustling motel context through the cultured lens and colorful, yet authentic dialogue of residents. Interwoven in chapter 1 narratives about creaky, peeling, smashed, and leaky living conditions at the hotel, Dum provides a useful city planning framework that allows readers to understand how public funds and local codes are used to set licensing parameters. These regulations control residency and limit consumer access to commercial properties based on neighborhood pressures. Such licensing requirements create barriers to accessible housing for people with criminal justice histories. The chapter also explores additional community hostilities and provides a useful lens for the reader to understand the depth of social isolation among ill-fated people in similar situations.

There are a number of trajectories into housing instability and Dum provides an enlightening journey through life histories of residents previously convicted, paroled, and released. Just as chapter 2 outlines the complexity of adjusting back into society and resettling from previous transient housing conditions, chapter 3 illuminates common struggles and coping strategies among this marginalized population. Dum shares an in-depth view of personal traumas, substance addictions, and criminal behaviors that often accompany survival tactics on the street. Most impressive is the author’s ability to engage with residents and be respected by them, as demonstrated by their ability to reveal quite intimate narratives related to resisting stigma.

In chapter 4, Dum explores the complexity of conflict and the fragility of social interactions among the community of residents in budget hotels. Bartering resources, providing emotional care, and safeguarding friendships leverages protection for residents despite personal deficits and vulnerabilities. However, several types of internal and external conflicts tend to break these fleeting alliances and may push residents back into the cycle of insecure housing transience.

An interesting construct, in chapter 5, Dum introduces the idea of social “sanitation” referring to the local citizen’s efforts to remove budget hotels and their residents from the community, particularly those registered as sex offenders. Sanitation strategies included an imposing police presence, unremitting hostility from local community members, and scrutinizing media coverage of motel residents. Such antagonistic community reactions occurred despite hotel residents’ primary preoccupation with survival tasks such as obtaining needed resources and finding work.

Dum’s work adds to the growing literature about hidden populations of people who take up residence in hotels in an effort to survive past interpersonal traumas, precarious health realities, and fragile financial histories. In the conclusion of his book, Dum details the abrupt eviction of motel residents he had known and many others who were all too familiar with forced ejections from housing. Overall, this ethnography is an honest portrayal of hostile outcries from a fearful middle-class America, slumlord economies, and resultant outcomes for marginalized populations.

This description of ex-offender motel residents as “social refugees” creates important implications for social policymaking. Readers of this work should ponder the American criminal justice system’s role in unstable re-entry into a resistant community context. One could also question the under-checked slum housing management and resulting health effects for vulnerable residents. Could there be a policing role for the Department of Housing and Urban development of these private motel entities? And, if so, what affect would such actions have on the availability of this quick rehousing option for marginalized populations in society?

Ultimately, the findings of Dum’s study, along with previous scholarly descriptions of financially fragile hotel residents, pose the ultimate question about the suitability of a budget motel as a housing option. Certainly, there are unique benefits of this housing type that is highly accessible to the most vulnerable client base. Often, included in a daily, weekly, or month payment without credit check, one has access to a host of resources, including furniture, dishes, appliances, cable television, and phone service – among other available amenities on the property. How can the positive characteristics of a motel be leveraged for responsible social housing while also accommodating the needs of the surrounding community?

In closing the book, the author provides sensible policy recommendations, including implementation of socio-spatial management of residents, public-private partnerships for system-level intervention, policy reviews, and continued research studies to explore pathways into homelessness among previously institutionalized individuals. Ideas presented in Exiled in America: Life on the Margins in a Residential Motel are sure to drive policy planning and practice decisions among professionals working with social refugees who are precariously housed and cyclically homeless.

Terri Lewinson, PhD, LMSW is Associate Professor of School of Social Work, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, Georgia State University

Health and Aging Policy Congressional Fellow, Social Research and Public Policy Fellow, John A. Hartford Geriatric Scholar

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