Once when I was part of an effort to end homelessness in our community, one of the participants who had himself been homeless objected to the term. “We’re houseless, not homeless,” he insisted. Unfortunately his preferred term never caught on. I understood what he meant though. It was more than the fact that many people without housing live in cars or campers, or take up residence in empty buildings, or crude shacks built in remote areas.
It was the realization that all of us share a home on Mother Earth that may or may not include four walls and a roof. I remembered how Jesus once lamented that birds have nests, and squirrels have burrows, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. Yet we never think of Jesus as having been homeless. Nor do we think of our nomadic ancestors as having been homeless. There was always a sense that people were at “home” in their own bodies, in their natural environment, and in the communities of those they identified with.
This realization struck me on a deeper level years later when I went to pick up someone who had been living a nomadic “houseless” existence for long stretches of time when he could not find nor afford a drug treatment program that could take him in. After living that way all summer and most of the fall, I went to bring him to a place where it would be safer and warmer to wait for a bed to open up.
I offered to go with him and help carry it back, but he said no. It was too far, and the most direct route would have us climbing up and sliding down huge dunes. So I took a walk along the beach while awaiting his return.
The weather had been stormy for the last few days and the morning sky was a molten sheen of silver as the sun tried to burst through. The tide was out and tiny rivulets of water had formed between the ripples of wet sand, reflecting the bright sky. Dozens of sand dollars in all sizes had been washed up on the beach, most of them perfectly whole, and I collected my share. Hundreds of tiny sea birds hunted among the puddles and shallow waves. Among them gulls flew in and out, and one long-legged white heron tip-toed among its cousins.
It was breathtakingly beautiful and peaceful. I imagined him up there, all alone among the sand dunes at night, peeking up at the bright expanse of stars, hearing the hum of the breaking waves, breathing in its salty breath.
Camping out it might have been called–once upon a time in a land far away.
But when he returned with his gear I found out it wasn’t that way at all. The dunes where he slept were full of fellow travelers. As we were driving away he had me pull over so he could hail down a man on a bicycle packed tight with tent poles and back packs and what looked to be a small camp stove.
“Tell Josh I left the tent and blankets he loaned me out there for him.”
Many people like them and the bike rider lived back there, and the place where he had slept would not remain empty long. The secure burrow deep beneath a sage bush had been dug by another, inhabited and abandoned time and time again.
But that’s not the half of it, he told me. Many have lived out there so long and had become so adept at doing so, they had tapped into the electric grid and had TV, computers, and electric lights.
This was true back in the canyons far from the beach as well. There a whole community of “homeless” residents lived, having dug caves and elaborate tunnels into the hillsides, and built tree houses for lookouts to guard against intruders. Hundreds lived back there, he said, in relative luxury, since they too had found ways to plug into the electric grid. The homeless 1%, I suppose.
This is not to make light of, nor to romanticize the plight of people who lack mainstream housing. There is no question that for some this is a lifestyle choice.
But for the vast majority who live on the streets or in the dunes and canyons, they do so because they have no other options. They are there because poor health and medical bills left them bankrupt and houseless. They are there because a lost job, a string of bad luck, addiction, mental illness, and an array of other similar calamities left them no choice but to try to find a way to exist without a house to live in.
Sadly, we’ve make outcasts and outlaws of the poor and sick and struggling. We’ve banished them to live outside the norms of society and forced them to create counter communities at the fringes of society.
We call them homeless, when in truth we all share one home. We’ve simply failed to provide for our own. We’ve failed to create the kind of safeguards and services that would keep all of us safely housed.