It’s time to re-think what homelessness looks like.
In 2014, I met up with a friend on St. Thomas, USVI for lunch.
“You look like one of those ‘backpack girls’,” he told me as I arrived and sat across from him, storing my backpack under the table.
“What’s a ‘backpack girl’?” I asked.
He explained that women had been showing up on the island with nothing but a backpack, going to beaches and bars to chat up guys they could go home with and have a place to sleep.
I wasn’t a backpack girl, and while I didn’t have any judgement about the new phenomenon, I was interested by the fact that it was a phenomenon at all.
Whether or not these women had homes on the mainland, they were, when it all boiled down to it, showing up homeless on the island.
In 2016, the New York Post published a story featuring two homeless men in New York who used dating apps and social media to find sexual partners whom they could spend the night with.
After that, the Google search frequency for the term “hobosexual” was never the same.
Similar stories have continued to pop up, describing a sort of “homeless lite” or “hidden homeless” situation for young men and women couch-surfing and sexual-favor-providing through their first unstable housing experience.
Reading these stories about attractive young men and women swiping for shelter quickly reveals that newly homeless people don’t fit preconceived notions of what homelessness “looks like,” and that this feeds into people’s self-perception and unwillingness to identify as homeless.
Stories about hobosexuals often describe groomed, well-dressed, and educated people. They are young and tech-savvy, with smartphones and Instagram-worthy profile pictures: necessary things for securing dates and beds.
Homelessness can happen to anybody.
There are common themes: lost jobs leading to being unable to pay rent, being kicked out by family or a significant other due to substance abuse, mental health issues, or being LGBTQ, aging out of foster care — the stories are heartbreaking, but often the newly homeless don’t see themselves as such: they’re just going through a “rough patch,” and don’t want pity.
Dave Williams, LSW, a health care provider for homeless people in North Dakota, described his interactions with homeless youth (age 18–25) this way: “On the cuff but not yet over the edge, these young people seem to surface and then disappear.”
I think I know where some of them go.
Hobosexuals still have many of the most important possessions they had before they lost their housing: their best clothing, their technology, and their belief that everything is going to be okay. They may even have family who would be willing to take them in, if only they’d admit they needed such help.
But the stories rarely indicate that a person self-identifies as homeless (at least not until the experience is well behind them), and their sexual partners often don’t realize that’s the case. As long as they can keep attracting people with a place to sleep, even forming long-term, live-in relationships, it pushes that label just far enough away to not apply. It allows them to deny the obvious.
There is shame in the label, “homeless”. And of course, “hobosexual” isn’t very flattering, either.
There is another applicable label here. Using dating apps to look for partners is one thing, but using them to secure a bed to sleep in is quite another.
The latter is called survival sex.
Studies on survival sex are plentiful: it is differentiated from prostitution and sex trafficking in that survival sex is generally not in exchange for money, but instead a direct exchange for basic life needs such as food and shelter.
Survival sex, however, is often quantified after the fact from surveys of youth or adults who sought help: one 2013 New York study, for example, found that 8% of youth (aged 18+) who came to Covenant House for shelter had engaged in survival sex.
How many people who haven’t sought help are engaging in survival sex today? It’s much harder to survey people who currently don’t identify as homeless, don’t reach out for assistance from social services, and instead continue to seek out new sexual/romantic partners to lean on.
My friends: we are not equipped to help these people in all the ways they need.
My newly homeless, homeless-lite, couch-surfing, swiping-for-shelter friends: it is okay to get help. It is much more okay to get help from professionals than strangers-turned-lovers.
Survival sex includes people staying in abusive relationships because they have nowhere else to live. It includes people having sex with people they aren’t attracted to, even outside the genders they’re attracted to, because they need the bed. It includes seeking out sexual partners and long-term relationships for shelter. It includes sexual/romantic partnerships based on warped ideas about what love should look like, due to dysfunctional relationships witnessed at home growing up.
Survival sex can quickly turn into some difficult situations, and most of us are not equipped to handle them.
It can be tempting to help a new, exciting, attractive person going through a rough patch, but if it requires providing shelter, you may not be the best person to provide that assistance.
There’s such a stigma around homelessness that newly homeless people are turning away from free services, digging themselves more deeply into their problems and increasing their chances of becoming the very stereotype they fear. And while I know some people have good reason to distrust systems, I’d argue the vast majority simply haven’t tried out of pride or shame.
We need to change our perception of homelessness.
Professional services can connect people to counselors, medical services, substance abuse rehabilitation programs, and job assistance. The earlier someone gets help, the better. Homeless services operate with the goal of getting people well and housed, and employ way more manpower than you or I can offer towards that goal.
If you care about someone, you should want them to get the best help they can, even if that best help is not you.
If you or someone you know is engaging in survival sex, here are some resources (these are just US national ones a quick Google search pulled up — I highly recommend looking into resources local to you!):
As for the backpack girls of St. Thomas —I’m not sure how well-placed any concern is. Are they enjoying a little sex tourism, despite their lack of contribution to the island economically? Are they escaping their own realities at home, opting instead to be homeless somewhere warm year-round?
Maybe it’s neither; maybe it’s both.