What is Home?
What is home to you? That’s the interview question I asked most frequently this month. It’s also a question I regularly ask myself. What is my home? What does home mean to me? And what does the loss of home really entail? Similarly, what freedoms does the rejection of home (society) provide for those for whom homelessness is a conscious choice?
The responses I received from the people I talked to this month were as unique as those who gave them. On the topic of ‘what is home?’ Dark Forbid said:
That all comes down to what you seeking from your life… can bad housing ever be called home?… I think [emotional homelessness] stems from an unhappiness within the self… which makes you restless in whatever environment you live, moving just freshens the mind with new inputs, but ends in the same restless cycle.
In contrast, when asked whether he needs an apartment or house to feel at home, Jaytee Starr said:
Yes. A house or apartment is required for me to consider a place “home.” I have some social hang ups and groups make me really anxious so I avoid them. I just need control.
And Rick, who’s been traveling for the last 12 years, reckoned that itinerancy is different to homelessness. His home, it seems, is on the road:
Well, I think… traveling around… is different. When you’re traveling, you have some power. You can think to yourself: do I want to stay here, or do I want to move on? And you might be in a place for just one day. Just one day of being looked at… as though you’re not from there. And that depends on whether or not you find the right people. Sometimes you find a place to belong and you don’t get looked at at all.
It’s different to ‘know deeply’ now that homelessness is an incredibly complex issue. Before I began this project, I felt empathy for those ‘undomiciled’ folks I saw on the streets. I thought their presence (and this I still think) was emblematic of an unequal, and intolerant society; one that promotes status, image and individual material wealth over compassion and collectivism. Not something you want to think about everyday; but when there’s someone living on your doorstep (outside, and it’s snowing), it’s hard not to. You’re implicated, just by living there.
But I had no idea of the vastness of the numbers of invisible homeless, beyond those you and I see as we walk down the street. The world of shelters, yes, and the service agencies that dish out hot soup in hidden moments by the Hudson river – those too. But also the homeless people who live in construction lots, or in their cars, or in trailers, and get up early to go to work every day. The people who live in transitional housing arrangements who we bump into at the grocery store. The people who sleep in shelters and serve us – or serve alongside us – coffee at Starbucks. The ‘middle-class’ homeless of the Great Recession, those who live ‘between places,’ at friends’ houses, in garages, in parking lots, in tent cities. The LGBTQ homeless youth, who are in danger of abuse in the conventional shelter system. Temporary conditions, and permanent ones. An incredible diversity and magnitude. In America, approximately 3.5 million people, and the number is rising.
For those homeless who’ve lost their homes to foreclosure, or lost their wages and therefore also their apartments, or have a mental illness or disability but cannot get institutional care, home might be a real, physical dwelling. A basic right to shelter which has been lost.
For those homeless who were rejected by their families because of their sexuality, or became homeless once they were released from foster care, or grew up as ‘third culture kids,’ home might also be an emotional, spiritual base, a network of relationships, a community.
And for those homeless people who roam the country and the world, moving couches, apartments, towns and cities, home might also be something that exists where it isn’t, the art of home in searching; a perpetual absence.
I find it fitting that Brianna Karp, one of the first homeless writers I read at the beginning of this project, chose to end The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness by describing her yearning for home. The home she yearns for though, is not just a physical address. It’s a community, and a sense of belonging.
“It’s been just over a year since I’ve lived in a house, but I realize, with not a small amount of melancholy, that I can’t remember the last time I ever felt that I had a home. All my life I’ve longed for someplace to call my own – and not just a physical building, but a niche, somewhere that I fit in and feel a sense of harmony and belonging… I deeply want a home, quite possibly more than anything in the world. And that’s the next, most important step for this homeless girl.”
This month has taught me the value and fulfillment in helping those whose basic right to shelter has been taken away. I’m reminded of the importance of contributing to the parts of life that foster community; friendship, service, and friendly compassion for others. The issue of nostalgia, or saudade, or sehnsucht, or fernweh, though, is trickier to resolve.
Maybe, for some of us, home is a difficult-to-achieve, changeable combination of all of the above. Shelter, community, and the indefinable, saudadesque art of searching. Perhaps there’s comfort in knowing that searching is a technique that can be, if not mastered, at least, slowly, refined.