Being community and family

Homelessness and Community Part I: “Home”-lessness, Not “house”-lessness

Homelessness and Community Part I: “Home”-lessness, Not “house”-lessness

Being community and family

You may be homeless if you’re sleeping rough, don’t have rights to stay where you are or you live in unsuitable housing”.

Shelter, Housing charity providing advice, support and legal advice to those precariously housed or homeless

This means that you are homeless if:

  • You are sofa-surfing, staying with friends or family
  • Staying in temporary accommodation (hostels, shelters, B&B)
  • Squatting
  • Living in fear of domestic violence
  • Separated from family because you don’t have a place to live together

Its more than that though. Homelessness is by definition the absence of a home. But what is a home? Some say: “Home is where your heart is”. This means nothing to someone who is sleeping rough and struggling to survive. In this sense home starts off with the understanding that it is a place where your basic needs are met. We predominantly find shelter, food, water, warmth, rest in what we would call “home”. It is also the place where we find safety and security. All of these are our basic needs and for the vast majority of us these things are associated predominantly with the notion of “home”.

It is however possible to satisfy our basic needs outside of the context of the four walls and a roof under which we live. The Wolverhampton Church Shelter provides all of these things to a greater or lesser degree to the guests who stay there and yet they would not call it “home” in any traditional sense of the term. 

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs assumes that once we have found some stability in terms of those basic needs, the need for social interaction begins to play a bigger role. Again home is central to this. Home is meant to be the place where we find a sense of belonging, acceptance and love. It is where we seek to fulfil our need to belong and feel like we are a part of something that is greater than just ourselves. It is the epicentre for the nuclear family. It is where in theory we find a sense of acceptance and love from family members, where we know that we will not be judged and where forgiveness will always be available.

Sadly, this is so often not the case. Major studies have found significant links between homelessness in adult life and traumatic childhoods. For the vast majority of those who struggle to find a place to live, “home” growing up was not a place of provision, safety and security. They suffered from abuse, neglect, bullying, family breakdown, substance misuse, domestic violence and extreme poverty. Many of them will have sought to find the things that we value in what we call home, elsewhere. These kinds of issues can lead to gang affiliation, offending behaviour, sexual promiscuity and many other negative and destructive behaviour patterns. The lack of formation of a strong bond with a child’s primary caregiver, often leads to difficulty in forming healthy relationships with others generally and affects social relationships in later life which can be extremely dysfunctional.

Interestingly, our experience of tackling homelessness is somewhat at odds with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. He suggests that our basic needs for things such as shelter are more important than our social needs. Yet tenancies given to rough sleepers often breakdown apparently because their need for community is greater than their need for stability, security and shelter.

When you take a person who is sleeping rough and place them in a flat, you may be removing them from their community. Even among people sleeping rough there is a sense of community. Unless you put something in place to provide them with a new community, they will often end up gravitating back to sleeping rough. The issue is not one of house-lessness, rather homelessness. Putting a roof over someone’s head does not provide them with the sense of acceptance and belonging that is needed to find a home. In these circumstances, it actually often alienates them from those things. Homelessness and community have to be understood together if we are to tackle such a prevalent issue in contemporary society.

Understanding such considerations has to be at the heart of how we shape our homelessness services for the future.

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