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Young people told to stay at home amid coronavirus, but where is home?

Yevette Smith, 23, works from the couch in her childhood house in Chicago.
Yevette Smith, 23, works from the couch in her childhood house in Chicago. (Yevette Smith/Handout photo)
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Twenty-somethings were condemned for congregating at bars and crowding at beaches before much of the United States shut down. They heard calls to “go home” from politicians and celebrities shaming them for continued spring break revelry. But for a typically transient age group that splits time among family, roommates and ill-defined romantic partners, where, exactly, is home?

Stay-at-home orders and coronavirus quarantines have highlighted dilemmas specific to emerging adults — those 18 to 29 who are increasingly likely to be without spouses, children or long-term jobs. Because the average ages of marriage and parenthood have risen over the last decades, mobility has become a larger part of their identity but has them struggling to decide where to hunker down during the crisis.

Yevette Smith, a 23-year-old graduate student at American University, has opted, at least for now, to quarantine with her parents in Chicago instead of in her D.C. apartment. While she is grateful for the company and home-cooked meals, Smith said, she is evaluating every two weeks whether it is safe to return to her own place, where she can feel like an adult again.

“I feel myself regressing,” she said. “My mom came up to me and said, ‘Put your video games away, you have to do your homework.’ I am in my second year of my master’s degree. I know how to do my homework.”

Smith, who even misses going to the grocery store alone, said she decided to stay in Chicago for one reason: “In the back of my mind, I know I wouldn’t want to go through this alone.”

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While some have found that their conception of home has changed since they last lived with their families, Smith is not alone in returning to her childhood abode to weather the storm.

“Their life is in flux right now, and they do not have a stable home base where they feel safe and comfortable,” said Daniel Liberman, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University. “For the majority of them, in the context of fear and uncertainty, their instinct is to return home to their family of origin.”

Many people in this age group do not have a choice about where they will quarantine. Some, such as first responders and those in the service industry, may not have jobs that allow for remote work. Others, who have been furloughed or laid off, are forced to move home because they can no longer afford rent or food. And about a third of young people already live with their parents, according to 2017 census data.

For those who do have a choice about where to quarantine, deciding whether to return to a childhood home can be complicated. College students living in off-campus apartments may want to stay near their school with friends, even though their classes are online. Some young professionals can elect to ride out the pandemic with roommates or alone in apartments.

“This age group is better equipped than some of us because they are used to technology and video chatting,” said Sarah Hedlund, a clinical assistant professor of clinical psychology at George Washington University. “But in other ways it really is an interruption not only of their lives but also of their development.”

For many emerging adults, the question of whether to return to family means considering the health of older parents, who tend to be more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Arya Hodjat, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Maryland, has spent about 40 days of his senior year, so far, isolated in his off-campus apartment. He decided in early March to quarantine away from his father, 67, and his mother, a 56-year-old cancer survivor.

“I just felt too paranoid to go back because I didn’t want to put them at risk,” he said from his College Park apartment, which his roommates have vacated. “Now, with all of these stay-at-home orders, I feel it would be irresponsible to pack up all my stuff and move home.”

Emma Vecchione, a 22-year-old senior at Brown University, wrestled for weeks with whether to stay with her friends in Providence, R.I., or return to her 62-year-old mom on Long Island.

“Especially because I am not very good at taking care of myself in the food department, the idea of having my mom cook for me sounds really lovely right now,” Vecchione said from her off-campus house, where she has decided to stay for the time being. “But what if I were to be the person that got my parent sick? That would be the worst thing in the world that could happen.”

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Vecchione said her fear of infecting her mom is 65 percent of the reason she decided to stay in Providence. The other 35 percent? The new “family” she has found since leaving home: her roommates and longtime boyfriend, who have stayed in Providence with her.

“My friends and I have been saying, ‘Is this what adulthood is like?’ ” she said. “More than ever, I am dependent on other people my own age for emotional support.”

Vecchione’s mother, Maureen Vecchione, understands her daughter’s decision to stay in Rhode Island, though she misses her child while spending days alone in her apartment.

“I think she is calmer there than she would be here,” Maureen Vecchione said.

Some young people have turned to romantic interests to get them through the quarantine. The percentage of 20- to 34-year-olds who are married or living with a partner has dropped over the last decades to about 43 percent in 2016, according to demographers. But some 20-somethings are choosing to seek shelter with romantic partners — no matter how new the relationship.

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Rachel Futterman, 23, has been dating her boyfriend for less than a year. When it came time to decide where they should quarantine, they packed their bags in New York and moved into her parents’ suburban house together. The couple had never spent more than five consecutive days in the same space. Now, they are facing the possibility of months glued to each other’s side.

“I was nervous that we would nitpick things that we learned about each other from spending so much time together,” Futterman said. “We were certainly not ready to live together, but I was also excited to have a snippet into what it would be like to live together.”

The mass movement of young people means many parents are learning how to live with their adult children.

Jeffrey Arnett, who edited the book “Emerging Adults in America: Coming of Age in the 21st Century,” said even he had a hard time adjusting when his 20-year-old twins returned home from college in early March.

“I was surprised at how difficult I personally found it to have this unexpected event of my kids coming home,” said Arnett, 62. “They do go to bed at different hours than we do. They leave stuff around. There are certain things that they like to eat and don’t like to eat.”

But three weeks in, he began to cherish the time with his kids.

“There are a lot of wild card games, let me put it that way,” he said, laughing. “But we keep it friendly.”