Defining Homelessness

Meghan Hollis
Jun 12 · 7 min read

Reflections on Different Forms of Homelessness

When we hear the word “homeless” we typically imagine an unkempt person sleeping on the street or under a highway overpass, their belongings gathered around them. The person who owns no more than they can push around in a stolen shopping cart. Most people see them as dangerous, mentally ill, and dirty people to be avoided.

There are many different forms of homelessness. Some of these are self-imposed while others are imposed by governmental systems, life circumstances, availability of resources, and lack of care or assistance. Ultimately, the effects of these different types of homelessness can vary. The causes of the different forms of homelessness vary as well. I suspect this is why no one has come up with a solution to the “problem” of homelessness.


What Does It Mean to Have a Home?

What does it really mean to have a home? Is a home a roof over your head? Does living in substandard housing constitute having a “home”? Does it mean a sense of identity? Does it mean having a space of your own or a room of your own? Do you have to own your home to truly have a home?

I have never personally owned a house or home. I have lived in houses that other people have owned. My ex-husband carefully kept my name off of the paperwork for the house he owned when we were married. When we lived in base housing, we lived in government facilities. The apartments and houses I rented were not my own. Even the place I live in now is owned by my partner. Not owning a home does have an impact on your sense of ownership over the space. I am very fortunate to have always had a roof over my head, but that roof is always someone else’s roof. Many in America (and other countries) have this experience — to never own their own space. How can one find a room of one’s own when they don’t even have a house of one’s own? Does having a home mean ownership? Or is renting enough?

I was married to a Marine for 14 years. As a result, my children grew up moving from place to place to place. Over the course of around 40 years, I have lived in six different states, in 11 different houses/townhouses/apartments/etc., and have moved twelve or thirteen times (depending on if I count the time we had to live in a hotel while searching for a place to live and running out of money for a down-payment on anything). The numbers are pretty close to the same for my children. We have had conversations recently about them not having what some of their friends have from growing up in the same city, in the same neighborhood, all having gone to the same schools. We watched Booksmart last weekend, and one of my kids commented on how they would never have a friendship like that because friends move on when you move a lot. They fall out of contact. Moving that much causes you to never truly associate a place with the notion of “home”. Does having a home mean having a place that you associate with “home” or with a sense of identity?

Of course, we have always had a roof over our head. We have never had to sleep on a sidewalk or on the street. We have never had to sleep in our car. We have always had a place to go. A place to accumulate books and movies and video games and other possessions. We have almost always had food in the pantry and the refrigerator (although there have been times that I have had to rely on others for that food), and the kids have always had a bed of their own to sleep in. A space of their own — even when those spaces were rather small. Does having a home mean simply having a roof over your head that you know you can return to every day? A place you can leave your stuff without fear of someone else taking it from you?

I read a book the other day called The Tattooist of Auschwitz. The people living in the blocks at Auschwitz and Birkenau had a roof over their heads. Many of them lived in the same space for several years. Did this mean they had a home? Could a concentration camp be called “home”? What about the internment camps used in the United States during World War II? Could those places be considered “home”? Once the prisoners were “released or escaped” most could not go back to the homes they had before the war started — particularly in Europe. Tattooist talks of them wandering the European countryside in search of homes. How do you have a home again when everything you owned was taken from you. You don’t have money for food or clothes let alone a house. You’ve been freed, but you have nothing. Nothing but your life and the fact that you survived. What would “having a home” come to mean for the many Holocaust survivors who were ripped from their homes, their homes destroyed or taken by others, transported to foreign countries far away, forced to live under dire circumstances as they slowly starved and were mutilated in constant fear that the next day would be their last, who had all of their possessions taken away?

What is home to a person who is in jail or prison? They have a roof over their head, but they don’t own that roof. They are probably not there willingly or because they want to be there. Is a jail or a prison a home? They have little control over their bodily autonomy. They do not have the freedom to select their home or to choose a new home. They can take little steps to make their space their own perhaps. They are stripped of most of their belongings when they move into this space. But their space is not free from intrusion or inspection. Is this a home?

I am currently working my way through a book: Dear America, Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas. This book has made me think about homelessness in yet another way. Does having a home mean more than having a roof over your head? Does it mean having an identity? Does it mean a sense of belonging to the geography in which you live? Being a citizen? Being documented? Being involved in your local neighborhood? Were the survivors of the atrocities in the concentration camps of World War II undocumented immigrants when they were released? They had tattoos with their prisoner numbers on their arms. Was this enough to make them “documented”? They’d had their identities stripped. Does identity matter in whether or not someone has a “home”?

Undocumented immigrants often live in fear of deportation. Their lives are defined by what they are not — legal or citizens. What does it mean when your very existence is illegal? Do these people have “homes”? Perhaps they have a place to live, but is it a “home”? Can you say they have the permanence of a “home”-land or a “home”? What about people, like Vargas, who were brought here illegally but without their knowledge? What happens when someone is brought to another country as a child for their own protection and to pursue the “American dream”. Do they have less rights to this “home” than those who were fortunate enough to win the birth lottery and be born here? Do they have a home?

A few years ago, I read another book called The Kindness Diaries by Leon Logothetis. We actually had the opportunity to meet him at a book signing. He connected with my kids during his talk and signing and bought my son a book — Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and wrote him a note in it. My son still has that book. Logothetis traveled the globe on the kindness of strangers. He got rid of all of his possessions, and travelled the world relying on the kindness of strangers for places to stay, food, and everything else that a human needs. I have had friends who have done similar things — getting rid of all of their possessions or putting them in storage, quitting their jobs, and using their savings to travel the world as they please. Are these people homeless?

I have spent this essay exploring the meaning of homelessness by trying to explore what falls in the category of “homeless” and what is outside of the category of “homeless”. I have also flipped the question to ask what it means to have a home. By definition, being homeless means being without a home. So, how do we define having a home? Is it a roof over your head? Is it a roof that you own? Is it having a place to stay so you are not sleeping on the street? Is it having a homeland that is your own and that accepts you as one of its own?

What do you think? What does it mean to have a home? I am not trying to stir up controversy around the homelessness problem. I am trying to bring attention to why it is a controversial issue. Why can’t we “solve” the problem of homelessness? We can’t even truly define the issue. We struggle to identify and understand the root causes and consequences of homelessness. Finally, the homeless population — no matter how it is defined — is a population of “others”. When we are able to “other” people, it makes it easier to ignore their problems and harder to develop long-term solutions that will work. The first step in addressing the homelessness issue is to define what it means to be homeless.

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Meghan Hollis

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