Sociology Professor Lives in a Motel to Understand the Living Conditions of the Marginalized
For Christopher Dum, an assistant professor in Kent State University's Department of Sociology, the term “bringing work home” took on a new meaning during the year in which he lived in a motel to explore and chronicle the lives of those “cast aside by society.” The experience was part of his research for his book, Exiled in America: Life on the Margins in a Residential Motel, available from Columbia University Press.
In his book, Dum documents the lives of struggling addicts, registered sex offenders, released prisoners and the recently homeless in order to bring attention to the issues they face.
“The goal in writing this was to show people as three dimensional,” Dum says. “In the instant that you start labeling people or start viewing them just as the result of one thing they’ve done or one vice that they might engage in and have a hard time kicking, then it becomes all too easy to devalue people and to label them as ‘others’ and do horrible things to them.”
In Exiled in America, the names of people and places were changed to protect everyone’s privacy. The book sheds light on the conditions that the “Boardwalk Motel’s” residents are forced to accept out of desperation. Years before Dum stayed at the motel, the building was audited, and code violations, including structural damage, faulty alarm systems, exposed wiring, mold and bug infestation, were found in every room. Nothing had changed when Dum arrived in 2012, five years after the inspection. The motel was eventually shut down in 2014 because of code violations.
“We need to ask ourselves, what are the minimum standards that we are willing to accept in terms of where people can live,” Dum says.
He emphasizes this as an ongoing issue that needs to be addressed and points to the recent Oakland warehouse fire that killed 36 people late last year.
“Just because you’re poor, coming out of prison or need a home, doesn’t mean that you should accept a dangerous home,” Dum says. “I don’t mean that we should give people luxurious apartments or anything like that, but you should live in a place where things work, where things aren’t going to kill you or get you sick. That’s just a basic standard of human decency that we should demand for people.”
Dum recalls the polarity he witnessed within the community between those who were concerned over the residents’ well-being and those who simply didn’t care. While the motel was closed down because of code violations, Dum cites a deeper issue.
“What people at the motel saw was a society that didn’t care enough about them to make sure that they get it right,” Dum says.
Aside from documenting the daily lives of his subjects, Dum also offers suggestions to improve and make policy changes to address the issues that lead people to move into motels in the first place. Dum hopes Exiled in America will encourage readers to step out of their comfort zone to engage those who might be different from them.
“In the book, I document a lot of people who were caring and really tried to help those around them,” Dum says. “I would just hope that if someone picked up this book, they would give it a chance. And when I say ‘give it a chance,’ I really mean give the people in the book a chance to show who they are.”