Notes from the Margins

Flash Forward | Fall 2017

Photo by Jeff Glidden '87

Sociologist Christopher Dum, PhD, an assistant professor in the sociology department at the Kent Campus, spent a year living at a residential motel to better understand its residents and the varied paths that brought them there—prison, disability, mental illness, addiction, poverty. Cast aside by their families and mainstream society, they paid $205 a week to live in squalid conditions. 

Told through the voices and experiences of the motel residents, Dum’s book, Exiled in America, paints a portrait of a vibrant community whose members forged identities in response to overwhelming stigma and created meaningful lives despite crushing economic instability. The following excerpt exemplifies the fine line residents trod between shelter and homelessness: 

For recovering addicts Dee and Toby, the physical environment was a constant reminder of the fragility they faced on a daily basis. Because of this, they established a narrative of comfort to combat the psychological stress of the motel’s living conditions. 

I visited their room in early December 2012 and was amazed to see that they had decorated a large Christmas tree that Dee had gotten from an ex-partner. Dee offered me a glass of eggnog as we chatted, and she claimed that there were 172 decorations on the tree. They had also put up two stockings, and Dee said, ‘We live in a household that does not exchange gifts. ’Cause you know we live here weekly, you never know what’s gonna come next week. Are we gonna have the money? Do we have to move out, are we gonna get evicted? We’re always livin’ like that.’ 

Toby chimed in, ‘We don’t choose to live here, this is where we have to live.’ Dee nodded and said, ‘I hate it here, but it’s my home you know. I hate it, I love it.’ ”

Excerpt from Exiled in America: Life on the Margins in a Residential Motel, Columbia University Press, 2016. Learn more at

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POSTED: Tuesday, September 19, 2017 02:09 PM
Updated: Saturday, December 3, 2022 01:02 AM