The Nomadia Project: A positive re-evaluation of poverty and transience

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Nomadia isn't just a documentary or journalistic piece, it's a collaborative, communal visual and oral history that looks at young people who choose to live on American streets.

Before the interview starts, Chris Urquhart is showing me a bunch of white splotches on her chest. "It's a fungal infection," she says. "My doctor says it's just from being dirty."

Urquhart, 23, is also recovering from lice and fleas, and was recently tested for parasites. She and award-winning photographer Kitra Cahana, 22, wear these afflictions with pride; they were earned in a summer spent travelling with self-proclaimed "dirty kids," a group of modern-day nomads criss-crossing America, homeless and living off the generosity and excess of the American people.

It's all part of Urquhart and Cahana's Nomadia, a collaborative, multi-media and book-length project chronicling the lives of these travelling kids and their subculture. Nomadia explores, in Urquhart's words, "what it means to be transient in a country that is founded on this idea of stability and money making." It's a question that comes up again and again, etymologically inscribed in the project's name: if home is no longer defined in terms of space, how do we define it at all?

Originally entitled Welcome to Rainbowland , after the annual "Rainbow gathering" held in a different national park each year, Urquhart and Cahana's project began in 2009 when Colours magazine asked them to do a feature for the teenagers issue.

According to Urquhart, upwards of 30,000 people attend Rainbow, a congregation of various American subcultures. One of these subcultures proudly fashions itself as modern-day nomads. They are steeped in depression-era hobo and vagabond traditions, evident not only in their modes of travel -- riding rails, hitching or asking for handouts -- but in their vaudeville-like music, street performances and sequestered community gatherings.

"This is a complex and really vibrant, thriving community that is completely misunderstood in the mainstream," Urquhart says. "And we didn't really cover it as largely as we wanted to in the first article we wrote for Colours. There's so many beautiful and really inspiring things going on with these kids who have decided to just take off from mainstream and live and create their own society that people just don't know about."

Urquhart and Cahana decided to pursue the story independently, raising money through donations and grants, in order to have complete control over the story. Urquhart calls their fundraising efforts "corporate spangeing" after the term street kids use when asking for spare change. After witnessing Urquhart's disarming charm firsthand, it's easy to see why her techniques worked on CEOs and passersby alike.

Indeed, the hardest part of the project was not getting the kids to trust an embedded journalist, but to give up the way she had always lived her life.

"It was hard, a lot of it. At the beginning, when I wasn't used to being a bit dirty or living in squatter houses or communal houses, I was really confronted with all the expectations I have with my own life."

In her first night, in a squat in Ann Arbour, Michigan, Urquhart found herself sleeping next to an alligator one of her new companions had picked up at an exotic pet show. "There was nowhere to sleep but beside the alligator -- and there were thumbtacks everywhere, and fleas from the dogs, and I was just sitting there and I was so sad. I was crying. I was, like, ‘Kitra, what are we doing here?'"

She observed that nomadic culture existed at once together with and separate from mainstream society.

"These people exist outside and in our streets but they're really existing in a different plane and they see reality absolutely different than I do."

Terms like "subculture" and "underclass" don't fully describe these young people. Instead, their lifestyle is a radical reappraisal of American life and its advertised cornerstones, liberty, equality and fraternity.

"They just want to travel and hobo and ride the rails and see America and see their country and travel and do it completely free." Urquhart finishes the statement eyes wide with astonishment and admiration. "It's amazing, [they're] really sustaining themselves with nothing, with no money. And it's such a reversal of how I conceptualize the American dream."

Middle-class North American life teaches us to expect a bed, to expect a bathroom and running water, to expect a clean set of clothes when we wake up, and rarely does it teach us to expect sharing a bedspread with a crocodile. But Nomadia attempts to document the ways in which those expectations cease to be important when home isn't a question you ask with "where?" but with "who?"

The more times Urquhart found herself in unfamiliar accommodations, the more expectations of what constituted "home" broke down, the easier she found it to connect to her companions and to new acquaintances. Again and again the fundamental experience of Urquhart and Cahana's project is one of community and social interaction, uninhibited by possessions or real estate. One of the travelling kids, Dharma, summed up the nomadic lifestyle for Urquhart in one sentence: "Life is so beautiful when you give up your pillow."

While the project focuses on the positive aspects of the dirty kids community, Urquhart acknowledges the hardships and abuses such a marginal lifestyle attracts. "There's a lot of abuse in general," she acknowledges.

"People spit on you, we're kicked out of restaurants and bars, people would yell at me on the street, ‘You're disgusting,' just because I was wearing a pack. There's a lot of fear, in the U.S. particularly, about nomadic existence."

And then, of course, there are the health risks, not only through those brought on by inadequate sanitation habits, but also STDs, parasites, and the consequences of poor nutrition. Cautious of romanticizing what she calls "extreme living," however, Urquhart stresses that not everything about nomadic existence is positive, but she prefers to offer an alternative view to how homeless youths are generally portrayed.

While many of the kids are proud of their non-normative choices, the compromised social and economic situations which prompted this transient existence cannot be ignored. Even so, poverty and abuse doesn't mitigate the control these kids have taken over their lives.

"A lot of kids are doing this because they don't have a home, they don't have money and they have abusive parents," Urquhart admits.

"I've heard horror stories -- 19-year-old girls who were raped four times. Horror stories. But we really believe that this community, for the most part, is a really vibrant, inspiring and positive community. These people -- they are poor, a lot of them, and they have been abused, some of them -- but they're deciding to live a transient lifestyle, create constantly, play music on the street, be familial with each other, support each other and live in this alternative community."

Emphasizing the risks involved robs travelling kids of their agency and the deliberate control over their own lives they've struggled to earn. "I see that as a really positive choice and a re-evaluation of poverty."

It's this kind of admiration and respect which prompted Urquhart and Cahana to form a collaborative relationship with the travelling kids, rather than simply adopt a documentary or romanticizing eye for their subject.

"Because Kitra and I are so young -- she's 22 and I'm 23 -- and because we're interested in similar things to these kids -- punk music, travelling, anti-consumerism -- we were able to connect with them [as friends]. But we were also very clear about what we were doing. We thought that was really important."

Urquhart and Cahana always retained creative control of the project, but tried to effect a cooperative and participatory relationship with the kids they were living with as well as documenting them.

"Sal [one of the dirty kids] is doing an entire sound ethnography of the travelling kid community, recording people's songs and lyrics and we're going to produce a music book with chords and lyrics of all these classic songs that all the kids play for distribution for free in the community off proceeds of the book. We've found that when we are really honest and open about what we want to do kids are extremely interested in it because they are really proud of their culture."

Ultimately, Nomadia isn't just a documentary or journalistic piece, it's a collaborative, communal visual and oral history.

Nomadia will comprise a photography book with some essays as well as a memoir component written by Urquhart. The project website,, will boast a multi-media element, with interviews and video, as well as contributions from the kids themselves, like Sal's ethnography. But at the heart of Nomadia is the placelessness of home, the joy of human fellowship, and the enduring thrill of the journey.

"I didn't think I would love it like this," Urquhart says. "but seeing the country from this side and this perspective and living in this subculture, it's really made me love the U.S. and see the generosity of a lot of the citizens, because as well as the abuse a lot of the people are really kind. You know they'll kick you down money and give you food and they'll support what you're doing and see what you're doing and see what you're all about and be into it. So it's not just negative responses. There's some -- a lot -- of love too."

Michael Stewart is a moderator on babble and a doctoral candidate in the department of English at the University of British Columbia. His work focuses on utopia, excess and modernity.

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