A house is not a home

Most of us use the words house and home as synonyms, and for the most part they are…

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

Most of us use the words house and home as synonyms, and for the most part they are. But what makes them distinct may be helpful as we consider housing as an issue and as an industry.

The construction of housing has been one of the primary drivers of economies both local and national. Each housing unit represents capital, labor and materials and, perhaps above all, an investment in the future.

Housing is, to put it bluntly, where we live.

And home is what we make of it.

We use terms like ‘homeless’ when perhaps what we really mean is ‘houseless’.

A house is a structure, a home is a place where we feel safe and welcome; where we belong.

As we travel we might feel “homesick” – but no one would use the term “house-sick”.

To be homeless, for example, should literally mean much more than being without reliable shelter.

If we used the term “house-less” to describe those we see huddled in tents or around make-do shelters, the “solution” to their housing crisis is much simpler to solve; if they need shelter, that, whatever that might end up looking like, is what should be made available them.

The devil, as always, is in the details. But housing itself is actually quite simple.

How, where and who pays for it is always the question, but if we have the goal clearly in mind, at least we can keep track of whether we are moving toward, or away from our goal.

Housing we can provide, making a home is a whole other dynamic. Housing may be transitional. Home, one would hope, is considerably more solid and stable.

Housing may or may not be individual. Home is the complicated web of relationships and history, maybe even identity that we have, deliberately or accidently, made.

When we are “homesick”, what is it after all that we really miss?

I’m guessing that it’s probably not primarily the buildings, though in some rare cases it could be. I think it is the sense of belonging that time has embedded in the place.

I was born and raised in the Tacoma area. When I travel, as much as I appreciate, if not love, where I am, I always miss home.

But home is not necessarily, or even mostly, my house. It is more the atmosphere, the pace, the texture, even the feel of the air around me and the sense of being where I fit in. For me, home is trees and blue, or perpetually gray skies, and the mountain in the distance. In other words, home is not a specific place, it is a feeling.

Being at home, or even being homeless, is not exclusively about shelter – it is about belonging.

There was a study of the homeless people in Seattle a year or so ago. They found that 80% of the homeless were from King County. In other words they didn’t go very far.

Virtually all of them had friends, family members, former classmates and employers close by.

They had a social, if not family, network they could weave themselves back into. It would be difficult in most cases, but it could be done.

When I see homeless people in the Puget Sound region, especially in the colder and wetter months, I always think “If I were truly homeless, I’d get out of here and go somewhere far warmer for the winter.”

I am sure some do that, but as I think about it, they would probably lose far more than what they would gain.

As cold and wet and humiliating as it must be to be homeless, at least if you know someone, or even where things are (like shelters or food banks or social agencies) there is at the very least the possibility of recognition if not restoration.

It is one thing to be down on one’s luck – it is a very different thing to be a stranger everywhere you go.

That warm weather might be more comfortable, but a glance of recognition from an old friend – especially one who might have a line on a job or housing opportunity or news from the family would be vastly more welcome. No matter where we find ourselves, homeless or not, networking always makes a difference.

I love travel, but what I don’t love is the sense of being anonymous or one of a crowd in an airport terminal or on a city street.

Home is not just a place, it is the web of connections, memories or even just sheer familiarity that we, accidently or deliberately, have accumulated and nurtured. Being recognized and acknowledged is the truest sign of being home.

There’s a couple I have known for many years. Before they were married, each one of them had moved multiple times with various roommates and housing situations. As a married couple, they, like most young families moved on a regular basis.

One time I went to see them and I noticed that they, as usual, had their same stuff, the same furniture and decorations on different walls and appliances.

They had made each new place their home. But after so many moves, it just looked like they were passing through, and this place too would be a shell of a memory with no real connection or commitment or sense of belonging.

They had shelter, but they were something pretty close to homeless – they did not have a sense of home. They both had jobs, so they could afford the basics of shelter, but they didn’t (until many years later) have a home.

I have a house, but when I travel, it is not the house that I miss, it’s the million barely noticeable tugs of duty and obligation of fixing things or putting them away or getting ready for a coming season, of having unimportant chit-chat with the neighbors that I miss.

My house, my neighborhood, even my larger region; gray skies and mountain in the distance, is my home.

Houses are made. Home is built, but in a very different way; not so much by timber and concrete, but by time and messy conversations.

Being “homeless” is not always visible. Being unhoused usually is.

Some of us may be couch-surfing or even tolerating intolerable housing situations, or even on the verge of eviction or foreclosure and our “homelessness” has not yet taken physical form – but it is on the horizon, even rapidly approaching.

Owning a home is the heart and soul of the “American dream.”

Stability and safety are the most basic of human needs.

If we can’t have those, and provide those to people who have lived their whole lives among us, what else can we count on?