Way Home Outtakes: The Meaning of Home

Tuna came one day, scratched at our door, begged for food, and never went away.

The Meaning of Home Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2016

Tuna came one day, scratched at our door, begged for food, and never went away.

Home is where the cat is.

–male resident of Tent City III

Home is never permanent, but I know it is where I find safety.

–female resident of Tent City III

…home is a place one belongs to, a place of safety and a gathering point for reestablishing social connection.

–Madeline Ostrander, At Home on an Unruly Planet: Finding Refuge on a Changed Earth (p. 79)

Think of words that describe ‘home’ to you. Nouns, verbs, whatever words come to mind. Write them down. Circle the top five that are the most important. Now, pretend you live through a series of unfortunate events: loss of a job, fire, pandemic, and insurmountable medical debt. You lose one important item or word from your list for each of these four events. Say goodbye to each one as you cross it off. You are left with only one aspect of home that you carry with you into homelessness. For many people, that remaining aspect of home is family, beloved pets, safety, or privacy. For many people who actually experience homelessness, they are forced to give up everything that matters to them, everything that represents home, including a sense of belonging, of community, of a place to nurture and maintain health. Of dignity and self-determination. For other people experiencing homelessness, they have never had a true home, or at least a safe, secure home, to give up, thus making their exit from homelessness that much more difficult. Of course, the causes of homelessness are much more complex than just a series of unfortunate events. This list of events is based in reality since all of the events do contribute to homelessness. Not enough people know that spiraling medical debt is a leading cause of homelessness in the US, a factor unheard of among our industrialized county peers due to our profit-driven healthcare system.[i] [ii] [iii]

This meaning of home exercise, although incomplete and imprecise, can help people discern the difference between a house and a home. A home is much more than a house, a shelter. This exercise can help people realize some degree of what homeless people have had to give up and what they can regain with enough community support. Looking at success stories and people’s stories of what contributed to their experience of and exit from homelessness can help deepen our understanding of this complex issue. Stories from people with lived experience help inform us as individuals and as a society as to how we can build on individual and community strengths, on lived experience insights, to greatly reduce homelessness, if not outright solve it.

[i] Jessica E. Bielenberg et al., “Presence of Any Medical Debt Associated With Two Additional Years of Homelessness in a Seattle Sample,” Inquiry: A Journal of Medical Care Organization, Provision and Financing 57 (December 2020): 46958020923535, https://doi.org/10.1177/0046958020923535.

[ii] twkett@bu.edu, “Medical Debt and Homelessness,” Public Health Post, accessed July 18, 2022, https://www.publichealthpost.org/research/medical-debt-homelessness/.

[iii] Jessica Lipscomb, “Medical Debt Biggest Cause of South Florida Homelessness, Survey Says,” Miami New Times, accessed October 20, 2022, https://www.miaminewtimes.com/news/medical-debt-ranks-no-1-cause-of-south-florida-homelessness-survey-says-9724408.

Note: This is based on results from my ongoing series of community-based “The Meaning of Home” workshops I have done with a variety of groups, including residents of Tent City III, high schoolers, faculty members, graduate students, and attendees at writing workshops. See more of this work here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.