Home can be where you live, or where you came from; a roof over your head, or, most important in the legal sense, a mailing address. Home can be the land that refugees leave behind, or the refuge, if any, they find in a new land. Home can be where you want to be, or a place you can’t stand to go back to. Home can be where you feel you fit in best, like a career soldier who thinks of his army as home, or an ex-soldier who has been through so much that he can’t handle being anywhere but a self-built camp in the woods. In the seventies there were Vietnam veterans camping in the wilderness around the Quabbin Reservoir near where I live, and even now, at least in summer, there are woodlots around the edges of towns and along rivers where some ex-soldiers hang out, on the indistinct border between homelessness and choice. The presence of a large VA hospital nearby may or may not be a draw to this area.
Homelessness has been a human problem for what seems like forever, or at least since our ancestors had any firm concept of “home.” Since the earliest recorded times families and by extension communities were traditionally assumed to be responsible for all their members, and to be cast out required a major breach of law or tradition. Sometimes, even then, there must have been individuals who would rather risk death alone than stay with families who grudged them the support society expected.
When I think about what home means, and homelessness, I’m old- fashioned enough to think of Robert Frost’s poem, “The Death of the Hired Man,” even though its most well-known line has become a bit of a cliché. An old farm worker returns to the place he’d worked longest and found the most kindness. He’d left that farm one haying time, when he was needed most, lured by an illusion of higher wages. Mary, the farm wife, takes him in when he returns, saying he’s come home to die, but her husband Warren is reluctant. The old man is no kin of theirs, and had abandoned them when they most needed him. He says,
“’Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.’”
“I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”
Homelessness has many facets, many layers, many causes. Having no place to go where they have to take you in is one cause, and so, sometimes, is feeling that being taken in only because they “have to” would be worse than being homeless. Silas, the hired hand, had family he wouldn’t go to. Mary says,
“’Silas is what he is—we wouldn’t mind him—
But just the kind that kinsfolk can’t abide.
He never did a thing so very bad.
He don’t know why he isn’t quite as good
As anyone. Worthless though he is,
He won’t be made ashamed to please his brother.’”
It’s a stretch to make a comparison, I know, but these days kids kicked out of their homes for being gay, or running away because of abuse, are sometimes homeless because the price of staying home is too high. Denying who they are in order not to “shame” their families, or putting up with abuse, is more than they can bear. With older people who seem to have chosen homelessness even when families might take them in, the reasons are harder to generalize, and mental illness or addiction are often factors, but the line between mental illness and a drive to be independent of the restrictions of family and a settled home is a hard one to draw.
The clearest cause of homelessness is, of course, poverty, and the more economic inequality there is in a society the more poverty and homelessness we see—or try not to see. Now and then, in some places, constructive efforts are made to combat homelessness; Salt Lake City has built groups of very small houses for the homeless and finds that the expense is less than providing emergency services for those without homes. Too many cities, though, are concerned more with pushing the homeless out of sight than helping them. http://www.nationofchange.org/utah-ending-homelessness-giving-people-homes-1390056183
What can be done? More opportunities for employment would help many, but some would still be left behind, without marketable skills, or too old to be attractive to employers who could use their skills. (Warning: A bit of a riff here about age, homelessness, and women. Women, even those without children, are more likely than men to go to shelters, partly because they feel even less safe than men out on their own at night, for good reason. And women are more likely than men to turn to sex work for economic support—there’s certainly a larger market for them—but even that resource depends on youth and attractiveness. Older “bag ladies” might well be raped for entertainment, but they wouldn’t get paid for sex.)
Back to what to do about homelessness. From my perspective, electing politicians who favor job production and infrastructure repair and a “social contract” that includes responsibility for the poor and afflicted over ever-higher corporate profits would be a positive step. On a local level, possibly more successful in non-urban or merely semi-urban areas, towns can get together with groups of individuals to provide help and shelter. Where I live there are active groups in several towns called “survival centers” that offer food and clothing and other kinds of help funded by contributions, and almost but-not-quite-enough shelters run by church and non-church groups. There are also meal-providers like soup kitchens (a major one here is called Manna) and outfits like our local Food Bank that organizes contributions from local chain grocery stores and runs a farm operation as well, supplying food to the soup kitchens and survival centers. We as individuals can support these efforts, even if it doesn’t seem like enough. (Another aside about women; I’ve heard that the greatest lack in contributions of goods to these organizations is tampons and menstrual pads. Desperately poor women can’t afford them, they don’t like to talk about them, and it doesn’t occur to folks to donate them.)
We can give what we can afford to those who ask for help on the streets, even when we can’t be sure what they’ll use it for. (When I owned a store I used to give gloves and scarves in cold weather to those begging in front of my business, and money now and then, but, I admit, sometimes as a bribe to get them to move to another location for while. A couple of the guys really distressed some of my employees by commenting loudly on the girls’ admittedly quite noticeable physical attributes. I also admit with a certain feeling of guilt that I refused to give to a regular street person who smoked cigarettes continually. Who am I to judge what someone needs most? But in this case I did know that she wasn’t exactly homeless.)
I wish I had better answers. I wish someone had better answers. Giving the homeless small, economical homes as Salt Lake City does seems like one good idea, if it could only catch on, but some would still be left behind. There would still be those, usually men, possibly addicts or PTSD victims, listed in police reports with addresses like “the streets of Northampton” or “the streets of Amherst.” Or like the lesbian couple I knew several years ago who lived through the summer in a tent and came to my store to charge their cell phones. One was clearly disabled and got disability checks, which, as far as I could tell, was what they both lived on, that and what the other, more dominant one, stole. They almost made it into the town’s limited public housing—I put in a good word for them with the chairman of the housing commission—but the deal was blown when the dominant one was caught stealing, and they lit out for Florida. I was glad to hear from the disabled one just this year on Facebook; she has good public housing now in Rhode island, while the other one will be in prison in Florida for a long, long time. I’m not judging the latter—I haven’t walked in her shoes, as they say, and as far as I know she only stole small items like incense sticks from me—but I’m glad to know that at least neither of them will be on the streets right now as a major blizzard bears down on New England.
Which brings me to the point where I don’t stop wondering what we can do about homelessness, but I do turn to battening down the home I’m so lucky to have in preparation for the possibility of being stuck without power or drivable roads for several days in very cold weather. And I count my blessings.