Home, Homelessness, and the Shrinking Distance Between the Two

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“I figure a homeless person isn’t a person without a house, a homeless person is someone who lives in a city who doesn’t have friends or a family … to me, that’s a homeless person.” Profound words from a man labeled as homeless.

That man’s name is Gregg—a man without a permanent address, speaking of his experience in a story about homelessness for CNN ireport. Indeed, we might call Gregg homeless. And, to be sure, not every person without a roof over his head will see things the way Gregg sees them.

According to a recently released report entitled, The State of Homelessness in America, nearly 580,000 people experienced homelessness on a single night in January 2014. Even with falling rates of homelessness, that’s a lot of people. People with stories and dreams and heartaches and talent. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development offers four broad categories of homelessness:

  • Literally homeless;

  • Imminent risk of homelessness;

  • Homeless under other Federal statutes; and

  • Fleeing/attempting to flee domestic violence.

Where Do You Feel at Home?

Historically, ours has been a culture in which home ownership is the dream. Gaining possession of a set of keys and a mortgage (or, for a lucky few, a set of keys without a mortgage) is one aspect of achievement, announcing to the world that we have arrived! But—and maybe it’s semantics, here—aren’t we really talking about house ownership, as opposed to home ownership?

When we asked our readers to define the word, “home” their responses reflected a state of being, more than a place on a map or a cul de sac:

“ … it is a safe place where we long to be in peace and protection. [A] place and an experience.” —Sharon

“Home is where your talents are nurtured, your gifts find a place to breathe, and your love is reciprocated. It is a place where you know you should be. This may or may not be in your family.” —Diane

“Home isn't a place as much as a sense of belonging. It is the place where you can be fully yourself, accepted, loved and cherished for who you are, not what you do.” —Shelly

We measure the value of brick-and-mortar houses, complete with open concept kitchens, hardwood floors, and windows that let in lots of light, by their mortgages and interest rates. But it’s difficult to put a price tag on the value of home, isn’t it? And, when home is missing from our lives, we know it. When our sense of belonging is missing, we notice it.

Consider these thoughts from Melinda:

I find comfort and love in deep relationships with family and friends, but "home" will always be one place, the house where I lived growing up in my family, the same home my parents kept until they died. When we packed it up and sold it, an anchor to this world lifted and will never drop as deep again.

The Changing Face of Homelessness

Of course, brick and mortar matters. As Abraham Maslow pointed out, shelter—along with sleep, food, and clothing—is one of our basic needs. Without it, we often find ourselves unable to move forward in relationships or focus. And so, practically speaking, it makes sense for those of us who can, to help those who have no safe place to sleep tonight. offers a comprehensive list of thirty-five ways to help those who find themselves without shelter. And, if you’ll be in the Seattle, Washington, area on November 21, consider participating with Sleepless in Seattle, a project designed to distribute sleeping bags to the 3,772 people without shelter in that city.

But keep this in mind, too: we are not so different or so far removed from those who wonder where they’ll sleep tonight. Poverty is a major contributor to homelessness, and even people with jobs can find themselves without a permanent address. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, “more than a quarter of the 14,500 families living in homeless shelters have at least one person working full-time—and yet they still cannot afford the high cost of an apartment in New York City.”

As the Texas-based Green Doors organization states on their website:

The face of homelessness is changing. Though veterans, people with disabilities, and single parent families have always been at high-risk for homelessness, today, more and more of our country’s working poor are struggling with or at risk of homelessness.

What the Homeless Can Teach Us

We are not so different from those who will sleep under bridges or in shelters or on the couch of a friend or relative tonight. Robin Catalano understands this, and her family has been intentional about learning from the homeless people in their community. She wants people to know a few things about those among us who have been displaced:

  1. Different does not negate dignity. Those who choose to live without traditional forms of shelter still belong. They are a system—a class, a complex people group, deserving recognition and respect. They have a voice.

  2. Helping doesn't always mean you should be about transforming. It’s tempting to perceive the displaced as "less than" and to define their worth by their willingness to change. People sometimes need to be loved, exactly as they are.

  3. We can learn from them. I was humbled at times, by their systems, simplicity, and honesty. They deserve listening to. Humility, in the church, is often cloaked in an ugly sweater that says, "I'm listening to you, feeling sorry for you, thankful I'm not you." We are them. We just live in houses and have learned to keep our crap tucked in.

Home is a place, a concept, and an experience. Home is brick and mortar, and it is belonging. It is here and now, and it is yet to come. Glynn Young writes:

Home is a physical place, the house where I was raised. It is the physical place where I raised my family. It is a church in Erfurt, Germany, where I was whipsawed by what I can only describe as the Holy Spirit. It is a sports arena in Indianapolis where tens of thousands of men sang Holy, Holy, Holy, a capella. It is a place I can't know now but will, a place I think more and more about as I age.

If we have dependable shelter tonight, it’s tempting to draw a line of division between ourselves and the homeless. When our basic needs are being met, it’s tempting to look away when we pass someone on the street who looks as if they might not have a home to call their own. However, homelessness is more than a lack of housing. Homelessness is a lack of belonging. If we are honest, we have all felt this, a deep longing for a place beyond this world.

Perhaps we have more in common with those we call homeless than we once thought.