In recent years, communities around the U.S. have been faced with an intractable problem of homelessness, dwindling resources, and increasing numbers of tent cities within municipal limits. In this moment of U.S. upheaval, we have a chance to rethink what home means and how local policies can better meet people’s needs of home, particularly for those considered homeless. A common thread unites all community conflicts and decisions about shelters, transitional centers, tent cities and other institutionally created housing for the homeless—core beliefs about what ‘home’ and ‘homelessness’ mean. How we think about ‘home’ and what that means for housing impacts how people without access to those dominant types of housing are conceptualized. National approaches to home have implications for all citizens, but particularly for those who find themselves unable to afford the types of accommodations associated with ‘home.’
Homelessness first came into my life when I was young, volunteering at a church soup kitchen with my parents. On Sunday evenings, a line of tired-looking people would snake around the building, waiting for the back doors to open while I poured cups of juice and milk, and the grown-ups prepared food—always the same assortment of canned vegetables, mashed potatoes and chicken. I remember being told that many of the men and women who came to eat were homeless and this sat with me. What did ‘homeless’ mean? Did they all live in the streets? When we left after clean-up, I didn’t think much about their situation, though, beyond being thankful that it was not mine.
As I grew up, my awareness of people who were experiencing homelessness also grew. Some were on the streets, sure, but many lived in shelters that dotted the downtown landscape of my city. I’d never been inside a shelter, but I imagined them to be warm and welcoming, with beds for each guest. Back then, I saw homelessness as a long-term state and “homeless” as a concrete identity which it might take years for someone to break out of. Luckily, or so I thought, shelters were a constructive solution to this problem, meeting a visible need and housing people who had nowhere else to go.
By the time I finished high school, I had learned enough about American poverty and injustice to develop an understanding that without a home, it’s nearly impossible for a low-income person to get ahead in any other aspect of her life. I knew that housing was fundamental for healthy, successful families and for overcoming the persistent inequality in America. And I yearned to contribute to a solution. So, in 2011, I started working at a nonprofit that ran a rotating shelter in different faith communities throughout the Twin Cities. I thought the shelter was providing a way out of homelessness for people in need. What I learned there changed my mind.
For the first time in my life, I put myself into direct contact with homeless people beyond just handing them a cup of juice. I don’t know that my contributions amounted to much more than providing a cold drink, but I did spend time listening to the stories of the people staying there, and I allowed these stories to teach me about homelessness. I met mothers with growing daughters, single fathers with newborns, large families with moms and dads and aunts and cousins; some staying for just a day or two, and others who would be there for a whole season. (Program rules prevented families from staying more than six weeks, but if they did not find more permanent housing by then, they would seek placement in another shelter, or a renewal, and start the cycle again.) The shelter’s guests had landed there due a slew of unfortunate circumstances, and they were exhausted from the sheer weight of all this turbulence and uncertainty.
I remember a woman—I’ll call her Jenny—who had recently separated from her husband and was now in charge of their three preteen girls. She’d stayed with her mother for a while, but when that living situation fell through, the shelter became her only option, and she’d lugged all her family’s belongings in garbage bags to the church. I was doing the night shift one evening when her youngest daughter became ill and threw up all over her cot. Jenny never even woke me, but she cleaned up the sheets, gave her own bed to her daughter and slept on the floor. She was utterly on her own, with three young people relying on her. I could not imagine handling this level of responsibility without a stable place to come home to.
For those of us working at the shelter, our job was to provide, at the very least, rest for people like Jenny and her daughters. Days at the shelter would start around 4pm, as we prepared for a busload of seven or eight families to arrive at the makeshift residence. Once they got there, volunteers (and I) handed out snacks, flipped on the TV, threw together games for the kids to play or books for them to read, and got to know the guests. When evening crept in at the shelter, everyone went to their respective beds and a volunteer stayed overnight with them. Then, in the morning, the families would be bussed out to their respective jobs, schools or a day shelter. So it went, every day of the year.
Much has been written about the global charity industry which allows privileged people to donate their time and money to help the “less fortunate” without truly engaging or honestly listening to the people they seek to help, and this barrier between server and served was often present at the shelter where I worked. With the constantly fluctuating populations of volunteers and clients, it was challenging to develop anything beyond a short-term relationship with an individual and so much easier to just sit behind a counter and dole out snacks during your shift. Yet, for each month that the shelter spent at a different house of worship, dedicated members from that community threw themselves into the work. They believed they were providing a valuable service for people who needed a home. Meanwhile, I was on my way to recognizing just how far from “home” the shelter truly was.
Near the end of the summer, I started looking after a rambunctious two-year-old boy at the shelter whose young mother badly needed a break from chasing him around. He was adorable and I was enthusiastic to entertain and get know him. Then one day, I came to the shelter and he was gone; he and his mother had secured a spot at a higher-quality downtown shelter. Just like that, they left us. In that moment, I remember feeling quite hurt that this family wanted to leave our shelter for a different one.
Then I opened my eyes and realized how bad the conditions were. We were basically slapping cots and air-mattresses on the floor of a church basement and calling it a “home.” To make matters worse, every morning when the residents departed, they were forced to pack up all their belongings and carry them with, leaving the place as though no one had ever been there. The spaces they occupied and the amenities they were provided with were often cast-offs, unused because no one else wanted them. Sometimes families didn’t even get their own rooms.
I do not mean to diminish the efforts of volunteers and staff who provided a warm place to sleep for families in need, nor do I wish to write off the impact that the shelter had; I know that those enrolled in the shelter also gained access to employment help, legal counsel and other services during the day. So it’s not as if there was a lack of care. However, I also know that this place was not a home.
If you read the founding documents of most homeless shelters, you’ll actually find that the majority of them are intended to be “emergency” housing, meaning that they are a temporary fix for a person who didn’t make rent last month and needs somewhere to stay while she gathers the funds for next month. Some shelters are safe havens for domestic violence victims who are supposed to be relocated to permanent housing once the situation with their abuser is dealt with. Some shelters are specifically for men or women recovering from addiction who need a clean space for a few weeks. Regardless of the circumstances though, most homeless shelters were intended to be temporary solutions for temporary problems.
What has actually happened is that they have become long-term housing situations for hundreds of thousands of Americans. These children and adults bounce from shelter to shelter when their stay-limit is up, spending months on end in a system which was never designed to accommodate them for more than a week or two. Cots on a basement floor may be enough for a few rough days between paychecks, but they are not sufficient to house people long term. We can’t fault the shelters for failing to shift away from their original purpose, but neither can we allow these inadequate, unproductive living conditions to persist.
Homelessness is a critical issue that I have dedicated my life to combating, and I hope it is something that matters to you too. However, we cannot hope to bring justice into this situation without unpacking our perceptions of homelessness and truly listening to the people that we have labeled as “homeless.” Only then can we determine the best ways to meet their housing needs.
In the next installment of this series, I’ll talk about the thesis quoted at the top of this article, and how we can move towards broader concepts of home in order to create more opportunities for everyone to have one.