• E. R. Ambler

What Homelessness Means

Updated: 7 days ago

Many of us have a home and it is easy to take this for granted. As has been explored in a previous article, which you can read here, homelessness has become an increasingly urgent issue in the UK. Covid-19, lockdowns, economic decline, all have contributed to the problem of homelessness.


But when we think of the term ‘homelessness’ what do we typically take it to mean? ’No home’, such that ‘x is homeless because x has no home’? This would seem obvious enough, if we understand a home to only be a place in which to live.


But there are a few ways in which we use the word ‘home’; ‘has a home’ and ‘feels at home’ particularly. It is these two uses of the word ‘home’ that I think helps to provide the clearest picture of the meaning of the term ‘homelessness’.


Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

The first use of the word home would be in the phrase ‘John has no home’. This means something like ‘there is no home that belongs to John’. The implication of the meaning of the phrase is that John is missing a particular thing, i.e. a home, so that the phrase ‘John has no home’ bears a similarity to, for instance, the phrase ‘Mary has no iPod’. But we know that a home is much more than a thing which we can own or possess.


Although a home is a thing that we can own or possess, which provides shelter and warmth and accommodation, there are many people who live as ‘hidden homeless’. These hidden homeless might stay on a friend’s sofa or in a hostel, and yet are homeless.


I think this is because they have nowhere in which they ‘feel at home’. Although it is tricky to really say exactly what it is like to feel at home somewhere, we can say that it involves a feeling of belonging to a place, of feeling attached to a place and comfortable and rooted in that place. A home doesn’t just provide physical comforts like warmth and shelter, but emotional ones too.


In particular there is emotional comfort in rootedness. Much like a tree needs to be physically anchored to the earth so it can flourish in its ecosystem, so too do people need to be psychologically anchored within a spiritual ecosystem. This is the meaning of rootedness. A point of stability from which we can navigate our paths through life, like a base camp from which we can more confidently set out on our winding trek of ascension.


Such rootedness is not necessarily precluded by homelessness, but it is much more likely to be found in a place one feels at home, as through that place’s histories and cultures and people a person gains membership of a variety of wider communities. And the complex and symmetric web of relations that comes from such membership provides a context by which we can understand our ‘selves’ and our place in the world. A greater sense of feeling at home, of feeling rooted, is a greater sense of being a part of the whole.


So, to understand the meaning of the term ‘homelessness’ is to understand it as comprising two different kinds of privation: the first, physical, privation of a thing called a home; and the second, psychological, privation of a sense of feeling at home somewhere.


The double privation of homelessness allows us to see more clearly just how much more difficult is the climb for anyone who finds themselves homeless. If we imagine ourselves to have nowhere to live and nowhere to feel at home, then maybe we can see how much of an injustice homelessness is. If we want every person to flourish, to make their ascent in life, then we should understand that homelessness is a bit like trying to climb a mountain with a broken leg. And it injures our collective humanity each and every day.

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