If you live in an urban centre, you’ve seen them, perhaps even daily: unbathed youth in rotten studded jackets begging for change streetside; dreadlocked 20-somethings napping on sidewalks midday beside Sharpied cardboard signs; a kid perched on the corner atop a ratty backpack, immersed in a well-worn paperback clenched in hands with filthy fingernails. Most people avoid eye contact, shying away. Some assess with judgmental (or innocent) curiosity. The odd one will throw them some change, maybe even a smile. Sometimes it’s the faded tattoos or unusual haircuts that are off-putting; mostly, it’s the unclean clothes, the muddied skin, or the occasional empty beer can. These kids, a sect who live outside of societal bounds, bear the brunt of ostracization, sometimes out of necessity, but sometimes solely for the freedom it offers.
In her early 20s, Toronto journalist Chris Urquhart sought to tell the story of nomadic street kids by embarking on what turned into three years of travel among them. Inevitably, the line between her status as an outsider documenting this group and her close experience becoming friends with a number of them blurred. Dirty Kids provides a first-hand account of it all, offering moments of journalistic observation and insight into this largely uninvestigated subculture, alongside intimate personal stories of individuals and the author’s own struggle with mental illness and confusion about the type of life she wants to lead.
Following her admittedly more adventurous friend, photograher Kitra Cahana, Urquhart ventures to sanctioned nomadic gatherings and notorious punk flophouses, from Rainbowland in New Mexico to Burning Man in California to Punk Week in Michigan. We are introduced to an array of often musical, train-hopping characters with self-appointed names like Useless and Skunk, some of whom have been homeless since their early teens due to violent family situations. Others have chosen a life on the road as a means to protest western capitalism and consumerism. Urquhart’s almost immediate sense of belonging is complicated by moments of fear for her safety and knowledge of her freedom to periodically return home for medical care, keep in touch with a loving and supportive family, rely on savings and crowdsourced funds when necessary, or fly out to new cities. To her credit, she more often chooses to hitchhike, sleep outdoors, and drink in forests with the subjects of her investigation. And notwithstanding the tense moments, she’s “astounded at the group’s ability to accept anyone that wants in, needs in, and needs a family or a home or a good chat.”
Urquhart’s story is raw, personal, exciting, and enlightening, moving along quickly and providing snapshots – both in words and via Cahana’s pictures – of the locales and people she hops among. She does justice to the population she’s trying to depict, and will unquestionably make readers approach the homeless youth they encounter with a new, more sympathetic lens; perhaps even with a tinge of envy for their unabashed liberty from cultural expectations.