Reconceiving Homelessness

I did a Google search for “reconceive homelessness,” with quotes.  Zero hits.

Zero!  So, OK, maybe reconceive was the wrong word.  How about reconceptualize?

Five results.  Woo hoo!  I wasn’t sure what to conclude, but it did appear that people may not be actively discussing the possibility of reconceptualizing homelessness.

But at least I got a clue.  One of those five was a writer for the Columbia Spectator, the student newspaper of my alma mater.  Her suggestion was to reconceptualize homelessness as a problem of people, not labels.  Not a bad sentiment, but I suggest reconceptualizing homelessness as a problem, period.  This runs parallel to my suggestion to reconceptualize employment:  we need fewer homes just as we need fewer jobs.  Being without a home has its problems, in our present way of doing things.  But being without a home is not necessarily a problem per se.

To clarify, we have two separate concepts of what a home is.  For some purposes, a home is a house.  We have the homebuilding industry; it builds houses.  For other purposes, a home is a central feature in the lifeworld surrounding a person.  (The lifeworld is “the sum total of physical surroundings and everyday experiences that make up an individual’s world” (Merriam-Webster, no date), with an emphasis upon the person’s subjective experience rather than the objective or external perspective of some secondary party (see Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.).)

A person needs a house, and most Americans have one.  This is a matter of material externalities — of a protective structure to sleep in, preferably enhanced with fire departments and good neighbors and food to eat and ways to stay warm in winter.  What people characterize as homelessness is not that:  it is houselessness.  They want poor people to have a structure where they can sleep at night.

Few people in this country are houseless.  But millions lack a home — a house and community where they are welcomed and accepted, and can live a safe and rewarding life.  Millions of lifeworlds are in the grip of a sort of environmental catastrophe.

A so-called home — that is, a residence — could reasonably be considered helpful when it makes one’s lifeworld better, and detrimental when it does not.  So, for example, a house can become a sort of prison in which an adult or child feels unwelcome or unhappy, and yet is trapped in the sense that s/he has no realistic way to leave.  In such circumstances, the structure’s walls serve as a fortified perimeter, connected to the functional equivalent of barbed wire corridors running into the garage, out onto the street, and down to the school, workplace, and grocery store — beyond which, for practical purposes, it is difficult to escape even briefly, and impossible to live for very long.  A person residing in a charming house in a pleasant suburb can be experiencing a less tolerable lifeworld than that of some prisoners and slaves, or so I infer from the fact of suicides in nice places.

For most people, the residence is not a bad thing, on balance.  Often, it is quite pleasant.  Our comfort with our residences grows from necessity:  these are the kinds of places in which people like us are expected to stay, when we do not have some reason to be somewhere else.  And we are expected to like it.  The dominant ideology is that one must adapt to adverse conditions with resilience, must downplay and even self-deceive with respect to the parts that we can barely tolerate.

But as these remarks suggest, a residence can be a complication.  Everything has its price.  It is certainly handy to be able to just plug in a microwave and cook food that has been preserved in the fridge.  But there are the inevitable personal and environmental costs of building, buying, and powering such things — for example, the possibilities of unhealthy radiation or fumes, leaking from them, that the scientists and lawyers will discover when it’s too late, after you’ve already spent years using that foolish gizmo — as well as the time invested in buying, cleaning, maintaining, fixing, storing, insuring, protecting, arguing about, and otherwise dealing with each of them.

So the question of whether to have backyard grills and pools and the best kind of bathroom scale is not just a matter of whether you can afford it and have a place to put it.  It’s also a question of whether you want to spend the time and devote the attention that it requires, or whether there are other things you might more sensibly focus on.  And sometimes it may also be a question of how high you want to build those prison walls — how heavily you wish to fortify your house against being anything but the most comfortable place it could possibly be.  The world beyond tends to be the place where we keep our national parks and medical clinics and future friends and lovers.  The pursuit of comfort in one’s residence can become a distraction from better ways of spending time.  Was I watching TV last night because that’s what I really wanted to do with those hours, or was TV just an easy way of killing time that I had to spend at home because there didn’t seem to be anyplace else I could go, in this world that I have built for myself?

It could seem odd at first blush, but some of the most homeless people in our society sleep in big houses.  Their home does not include the pretty field where someone slept under the stars last night; it does not even extend to a sidewalk full of familiar faces.  Indeed, for various reasons related to the question of who they and their neighbors are, people in those pretty homes are generally unable to lie down in their own front yards and look at an interesting bug, or gaze up at the clouds.  The portion of this world that they own, in the sense of having it present to mind for personal experience, may not even extend as far as the corners of the cupboards that contain things they have put there and forgotten.  If you could accumulate infrared satellite images forming a heatmap of the places where they sit and the things they smell, touch, and see, you would have drawings containing mostly empty space, with just a few heavily traveled lines.  It is as though, on some levels, they are not even sure where they live.

Briefly, the problem of houselessness is that people do not have ways to experience some necessities and comforts that one’s own private residence can provide. But the more severe problem of homelessness is that many people must endure miserable lifeworlds.  It can be convenient — but can also be artificial, wasteful, and isolating — to assume that each person or family can best experience such comforts and necessities only in a single-person or single-family dwelling.

There seem to be reasons to reconceptualize houselessness as a problem of misguided social expectations, not of physical roofs and walls.  A problem of that sort can be addressed in multiple ways, only one of which emphasizes the duty of every last person to desire his/her own private residential compound and its accompanying leaf-blower.

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