A House is not a Home

So if 1/3 of homeless people are in shelter, and only less than 1% sleep rough, who else is homeless?  The bulk of people we would consider to be homeless are the ‘hidden homeless’, but what does this mean?  The hidden homeless are those who might have a bed and a roof, but it is not their own, and it is temporary, precarious, or down-right dangerous.

Take for example a person who is in an acute care psychiatric facility for an extended stay, and has no place to be discharged to.  They have a bed, heat, food, and a roof, but not a home.  Or, take a sex worker who is living with her pimp.  She has a space, food, even some income, but not a home.  Or, take a 16 year old who is kicked out of their house and crashing on a friend’s couch, they have the couch, a ride to school, and a Playstation, but not a home.  So, because people have a place to stay, does not mean that they have a home.

Next question, is this conceptualization useful, or is it simply a way to ‘stack’ the stats to make homelessness look like more of a problem than it is?  This is a fair question, because each interest area wants to find more funding, which requires public concern.  However, the reason that this definition is helpful is because research shows us that those who are the ‘hidden homeless’ encounter the same health and social concerns, and have the same negative trajectories as those who are ‘absolutely homeless’.  Therefore, we need to have adequate programs for all those who are homeless.

And, what is the first step in terms of programs?  It’s to make sure that everyone has a home.  This starts with enough buildings and units so that everyone can have a space of their own, with a lock and a key.

6 thoughts on “A House is not a Home

  1. The idea of the “hidden homeless” is a way to start seeing how poverty has destabilized our communities over the last thirty years.

    I’ve been nearly homeless recently and right now have two young men staying with me who would otherwise be in a shelter. Both have families in subsidized housing– can’t stay there– and have worn out their welcome with friends or were in temporary living situations either emotionally ghastly or dangerous. In the old days they might have been able to earn a living wage and find an affordable apartment, even though one has a criminal record and both are relatively unskilled, but not now. Now you have to be extraordinarily ambitious, brilliant or damn lucky just to get a leg up. Seeing as most of us are just regular people, how have we come to live in a world where that dooms us to failure?

  2. What is a “home”? A lot of the people described in this post — the kid on the couch, the sex worker staying with the pimp — could still have “a space of their own, with a lock and a key” so “home” must mean more than that.

  3. I would say it depends on why you are seeking a definition. If we are thinking about where we draw the boundaries of homeless-specific programs, then own space, lock and key, safety, permanence, and paying for it (through social assistance or otherwise), would probably be boundaries. Same with for stats. If someone asked how many are homeless in London and I said 50,000, you would have to admit that although my definition might be theoretically valid, it lacks a certain pragmatic quality.

    However, as you, Gil, Trevor, and David have been alluding to, there is something sociological and psychological about having a home that is missed by the definitions required to run a country/province/municipality. This doesn’t mean that we can’t deal with this factor through government programs (such as the Coffee House in London that provides a sense of belonging for people experiencing a mental illness (primarily)), but it also becomes an issue of magnitude.

    All that to say, for the purposes of what I do, a definition of just people who sleep rough is too narrow, but everyone who has a place but doesn’t feel ‘at home’ is too broad.

  4. I actually wasn’t referring to any of the psycho-social stuff you (and others) mention. I’m suggesting that a number of people who fall within the range of your identified “hidden homeless” actually fit your criteria for having a “home.” I’ve known couch-surfers and sex workers who could check off all these items: “own space, lock and key, safety, permanence, and paying for it.” I suppose the argument, then, would be that the people I’ve known would not qualify as “homeless”?

    This is part of the reason why I prefer the term “street-involved” in a number of situations.

    • Ok, I get ya now. That’s a good point, municipally they use ‘homeless and street-involved’ to get around the trickiness of the definition. Really comes down to why you are defining the term, and the implications (ie. is this just a program or government trying to prove success, is this a way of deciding who gets service?).

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