From Community to Compassion: What’s in a Home?

Hogar. Chez-moi. Keluarga. Ghar. Every language has a word, or many words, for home, and few things are more universal than the belief that a home is something more than just a shelter from the elements. Many of us have a deeply-felt intuition that home is, to quote Robert Frost, that special place where, “when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

Growing up, my home was filled with good food and good music. Christmas celebrations were a day-long event, stretching from the early morning race to open stockings to the afternoon carols (all of us gathered around my father as he played the piano), to warm eggnog evenings and snowball fights with my brothers under the starlit sky. Summertime meant scavenging for black raspberries in the woods, communing with trees, and dancing through thunderstorms. I had a lot of freedom as a child (my parents never limited any of these activities), but I always had to be home in time for dinner. If I was late, there could be hell to pay.

Over the years, I had friends who did not have such harmony and regularity in their lives. There was my neighbor with the alcoholic mother and abusive father. There were my friends whose parents were getting divorced. Even though I fought with my mother, the lock on my bedroom door, and my math homework, deep down I knew how lucky I was. I thought.

When I was about six or seven years old, I left my tiny hometown in southeast Iowa for a summer with relatives in sunny San Diego. It was there that I first encountered people without homes; the sight of human beings sleeping on park benches, pushing around shopping carts, and huddling in the shadows of buildings downtown was entirely new to me. Many times, I wanted to do something to help. I imagined bringing them food and saying hello, or even developing a more long-term solution to the situation, but beyond a few afternoons spent volunteering at soup kitchens, nothing ever came of my musings. And, over time, I began to become somewhat accustomed to the reality of homelessness.

There is a particular quality of large cities, a certain anonymity, that, I believe, makes homelessness on a massive scale possible. It has always taken courage to have compassion for strangers, but urban life makes it increasingly difficult to engage with the issue of homelessness. As the size of our communities has grown, the feeling of community with others has lessened. Although it may seem like an old-fashioned complaint, the truth is that we no longer know our neighbors, much less the people on the street whom we rush by on our way to work. Living in San Diego, I felt this sense of alienation and, to a certain extent, I accepted in through my inaction.

In high school, I left the issue of homelessness alone for a while, choosing instead to volunteer with organizations that raised money for problems abroad, but homelessness was always somewhere in the back of my heart. The presence of homelessness in my own (extended) family, as well as a growing understanding of the connection between homelessness and mental illness, which is something that I have had intense personal experiences with with friends and family alike, pushed me towards a deeper recognition of and respect for the condition of people who are homeless. And so, several years later when I arrived at the UC Santa Barbara campus, I joined Street Health Outreach (SHO), a student organization that works to build relationships between students and the local homeless community in Isla Vista. Through SHO, I hoped to learn more about homelessness, hear some interesting stories, and unlearn some of my biases and assumptions. All of that happened, and then some.

Through SHO, I met Clyde, whose acoustic guitar can be heard all through the park on a weekend afternoon, Charles, who likes to listen to the gulls down by the ocean, and Barbara, with her soft smile and her dream of becoming a judge. These people, and so many others, seem to me as much a part of the Isla Vista community as anyone, in some cases more so.

The reality, I learned, is that many of the homeless in Isla Vista are not truly homeless, but simply houseless — that is, they have all the makings of a home: community, a support network, and a love for the place they belong. What they lack is, quite simply, a roof over their heads at night. However, I also found myself increasingly aware of the profound psychological and physiological challenges of homelessness, as well as the nagging ethical and philosophical question of what the appropriate response might be, on an individual as well as on a community level, to people who are going through this difficult time in their lives.

Through a variety of courses in my major (Philosophy with an emphasis in Ethics and Public Policy), I began to think more deeply about issues of distributive justice and moral responsibility. I found myself increasingly taken with the communitarian perspective: roughly, the idea that rights and responsibilities are not situated in the individual, nor in the community as a whole, but arise from the relationship between the individual and the community. None of us exist in a vacuum; the narrative stories of our lives are inextricably bound up with one another, and it is only in relationship that our experiences and values take on meaning. To me, this suggests that solving the problem of homelessness necessitates rebuilding that sense of community, because it is only then that arguments for the rights of the homeless and our responsibility towards them will carry any significant moral weight across the political spectrum. Individually, we can work to see the homeless as human beings and spend time volunteering. On a community level, we can adopt policies and practices that are more welcoming and accepting of people who are experiencing homelessness.

There are many social issues that I could have chosen to put my attention towards, many of which I hope to pursue more deeply as my future unfolds. Homelessness, however, struck a particular chord with me; there is something so poetic, so universal, about the desire to be home. Our understanding of what it means to be home is embedded in our language. Homeward bound. Homesick. Homeland. In short, having a concept of home is an important part of what it means to be human and to live in community with others. Therefore, the presence of homelessness presents a challenge to our humanity; people who are experiencing homelessness are ignored and discriminated against, and many of them, particularly those with physical or mental disabilities, are extremely vulnerable. I will never forget how a friend of mine on the streets once reflected, when speaking about his experiences at University, that “all of us are the same, just not at the same time.” I’m beginning to believe more and more that he was right.

I see my role as a civically-engaged person primarily as that of an advocate; I hope to encourage members of society to reexamine their stereotypes and assumptions about who is homeless and why, while at the same time helping individual people who are homeless to reintegrate into the community by helping them to find homes, medical care, jobs, and support networks. After graduation, I plan to earn a Master’s of Social Work. As someone who knows the formative power of having a home, both in the literal sense of the word and in the psychological, political, and even spiritual significance of it, I feel a deep compassion for those humans without such a place to return to. For me, the condition of people who are experiencing homelessness brought home the value and the necessity of civic engagement. Home, as the saying goes, is where the heart is. It is only through becoming involved in my community, through building relationships and caring about local issues with global implications, that I have begun to feel like Isla Vista — and, to some extent at least, the world as a whole — is a place that I can rightfully call my home.