What is homelessness?

The answer sounds obvious doesn’t it? Its means not having a home! But what does that actually mean? Lack of shelter? Lack of amenities e.g. a bath, toilet etc.? Lack of somewhere to have friends and family to stay? What does it mean to be well-housed?

Well, this is one of the questions that policy makers and others have grappled with for quite while. And, there is good reason for this. The definition we use of homelessness has a direct effect on the number of people who will be entitled to state assistance for example; and this then either extends or shrinks the resources required to provide assistance. I recently read a PhD thesis that makes the case that a modified version of Rawls’ Difference Principal should be used to judge if a given policy is in the public interest. This principal states that inequality is acceptable, only if it in the interests of the worst off in society. Therefore, a given policy is only acceptable if it allows the worst off in society to pursue their conception of the “good life”.

I reflected upon this after attending a seminar given by Dr Peter King (Reader in Social Thought at Demontfort University, Leicester). During the seminar he reflected that we are, or should be “complacent” in our housing. That isn’t to say we should be aloof or not care about it; rather he finds that housing is something that happens in the background of our lives. It is not something we think about on a conscious level from day to day. It just exists, permanently and concretely behind us; and we are complacent to the degree that this solidity provides us with the security to pursue everything else we have going on in our lives.

So what does that mean for homelessness? If we are able to be “complacent” in our homes, then I suggest that circumstances that mean we are not so, inherently mean we are homeless. And I’m not talking now about the minor things that go wrong, light bulbs blowing, or the temporary inconveniences that mean we have to get something fixed or replaced. But the big things. Those things that make us think seriously about how and where we live or that make our homes uninhabitable.

There is already some support for this in law. For example, overcrowding or houses not meeting required building standards are already circumstances in which the law considers us homeless; even though technically we have a roof over our heads. But, the law renders these technical definitions. We are well housed if there is X bedrooms for X people, if the house meets the “decent homes standard”, we may be considered so even if it doesn’t.

What these definitions do not allow for are issues of how our housing affects the rest of our lives. I suggest that this conception of complacency is at least a place to start. To go back to Rawls, perhaps we are only free to pursue “the good life” where this complacency in housing exists? Perhaps we are only well housed if this complacency in our housing exists?