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The Jungle

On Homes

On the difference between "house" and "home".


It is one thing to read about the Bay Area’s homelessness crisis and another to dwell near it. To live here, to attempt to make one’s home near it, is almost too much. Exiting the highway almost anywhere one is bound to drive past these economic refugees sheltering under overpasses and on the unused triangles of land that guide cars on and off the main roads. But homelessness is common to the American cityscape and if it seems slightly more common here, well, we tell ourselves, it just is. The alarm bells have not gone off yet. Occasionally though, if you drive enough, you will pass by one of the industrial-sized encampments city governments have encouraged by simply putting the word out that this plot of land is designated for the homeless. It starts with a few homeless folks on what had been a previously unoccupied bit of grass. There is an auto shop across the street and an overpass looms as a backdrop. At night the streetlights and moving headlights ensure it is well lit. It is the stage for modern urban tragedy. These sorts of patches often already have evidence of a homeless person nearby. A shopping cart in the back of the lot by the hole in the chain link fence, or a slight trail through the Boston ivy leading to some bushes in a corner. The local homeless advocates lobby—or sue—the city into allowing this patch to become a designated emergency shelter area. At once rumor runs through the great city. The homeless rush to the land and throw together the shelters they can. Blue tarp and cardboard feature prominently in their building materials. The more resourceful manage to find camping tents or plywood. After a few months, decrepit cars sprout on the plot like oversized mushrooms and trash litters the streets. The grass is mud. Through it all, good-hearted people devote more and more resources. There is no exit strategy. The peculiar thing about the encampment I drive past as I leave my home for the freeway is that recently someone there has begun constructing small houses. Each one is framed in pine two-by-fours with a window and a door and a slightly sloped roof. They look to be around a hundred square feet, room for a mattress with just enough space to walk around it. These sorts of tiny houses have been a millennial obsession since the so-called “Great Recession,” which has persisted unflaggingly to the present. The tiny house movement is praised as environmentally friendly, economical, and socially conscious. I put little stock in this altruistic vision of the movement. It seems much more a product of millennials’ inability to afford a home. And they’re far from being able to afford one in the neighborhoods and of the size they’d like. This extreme economic pressure has guided a generation to obsess about finding a hundred square feet of unused land and then throwing up a shack to live in, forever. But the grimly amusing reality is that while many young persons write, and speak, and read, and watch, and click on photo galleries about these miniature houses, surprisingly few actually live in one. Those who do buy a house are surprisingly traditional. They want a home rather than a one room wheel-less trailer. They want craftsman homes covered in clapboard, or beige stuccoed McMansions, or whatever architecture normal people in less anxious times built and lived in. While the tiny house movement is praised for being ecologically sound, it is the actions of a generation—rather than its words—that tells the truth. Tiny homes almost uniquely reduce the value of the lot they are built on. Perhaps millennials are better with money than they let on. It isn’t just tiny houses though. Young people are interested in smallness of all sorts. Internet videos of tiny hamsters eating tiny burritos is an interesting case. There is a pleasure in the very limited extravagance being given to this rodent. The feeling of control, the silliness of its tiny life. Or take  the “pop up” store. A business that consciously can’t make it long-term exists for a brief moment, often only a single day. Normal businesses open and close all the time, but there is a kind of transient thrill in watching it all happen, purposefully, in a matter of hours. We hear a great deal, too, about the small life of childlessness as radical and praiseworthy, even though most millenials will still have a kid or two. And I need not go into detail about Marie Kondo. Horror at foreshortened prospects (which have often followed chaotic upbringings) is expressing itself in our desire to observe others who are even worse off. We watch small things to avoid the very thing they could tell us about ourselves. I am the hamster. My job is a pop-up. My house is a shipping container of goods fresh off a ship from Shanghai. All of this is a recoiling from our own reality by seeing that reality writ ever smaller. However much we would like to curl up into an existential ball and lick our ontological wounds, there is a point where fantasies of urban yurt-dwelling hit the hard-nosed reality of the possible. Some things make better Instagram photos than they do lives. Tiny houses fit into social media feeds; humans have little desire to fit into tiny houses. The virtual self is not yet the real one, thank God. But millennials who don’t like living in a tiny house still have a desire to see one. We want to see it on Facebook, but we want to see it down the street too. To that end, like a twisted scientist who experiments on the homeless, we are offering land to the homeless and building them tiny houses which we ourselves want to see, but not to live in. It makes sense that we don’t live there ourselves. The logistics of cooking and sleeping in close quarters are liable to be dangerous. There is a reason that even now in the lamentable age of the open floor plan, the kitchen is still mostly distinct from the rooms draped with flammable fabrics. The tiny houses for the homeless encampment near me have burned down twice in the past year. The good news is that when the fire department put the fire out and entered the encampment, the fires hadn’t killed anyone. The bodies they found had died several days before. The homelessness crisis is not just something afflicting the house-less. Any package from Amazon is housed on a shelf for some time. Dogs or birds or other animals may be housed in kennels or cages or stables. Humans house products, or livestock, but we are not ourselves housed. Housing-first and tiny house solutions are inhuman because they treat humans like Bezos’s wares. If the problem of housing is only an issue of where to put people while they are not working, then the solutions would be straightforward: Khrushchyovki, office sleeping pods, and worker dormitories. These arrangements are all illustrations of conflating homelessness with houselessness. Company towns are not a new concept; they house workers but they are not necessarily homes. The housing crisis is not the same as the homeless crisis, though both are real. But the crisis of homelessness is far deeper than we realize. The economic refugee camps in Oakland are a dark and tragic mirror image of corporate wanderlust. Casting the housing crisis as merely a conflict between gentrifying tech workers and the natives who are forced out of homes is far too simple. The truth is both the mobile worker and the tenant forced to the street are economic refugees; one ends up housed while the other, tragically, is houseless. But both are homeless. Any object can be housed, but humans need a home. Homes are places in which we dwell. They are places where our deep longings are fulfilled. We want to linger there and enjoy a meal, or return there to open the door into a room filled with light and the greetings of loved ones. Homes carry the memory of festal laughter. Thanksgiving with parents, grandparents, children, and grandchildren. Home requires leisure to decorate, and permanence in a location, and people who will be there. Home is a place we long to return to. Seen in this light the homelessness crisis is worse than we ever imagined. The causes of homelessness are far more than economic. Mass homelessness indicates a breakdown in social and political structures as well. Homes never exist in isolation. They exist, wherever they have existed, in communities and networks of homes. Somehow we have so far avoided the question: What is a home exactly? Clichés multiply: Home is where the heart is. Home sweet home. Even the Anglos here in California have signs by their front doors reading, “Mi casa es su casa.” When we must risk courageous action, we say that it is “for hearth and home.” I wonder whether these lines are so far wrong. Whatever homes are they are worth a bit of repetition. Homes home us as well as house us. The home to dwell in is a focal point of our affective nature. Home is a thing we love, albeit with embarassment. “Hometown boy makes good” is a phrase to put someone back in his place. Bringing a date over to meet one’s parents is always an anxious experience because our homes are intimate spaces. Homes feel homey when they are lived in; they are not homey when they’ve been cleaned of all signs of life for the important guest. When the intimacy of a home disappears we lose the home. The homeless child who flees his parents’ house is a sign of this. Even were the child to be locked inside with those parents whom he longs to flee he would still be homeless. Home involves loving relations in a fixed place. The family, when well constituted, is virtually incapable of failing to make a home. They live together, they enjoy one another, suffer one another, and celebrate and mourn together. They build one another up in love and move through life towards an ever-deepening realization of this goodness, which becomes the seed of contemplation. This is why families tell the story of their family to one another. Aristotle knew something of this when he counseled that friendship requires proximity. Friendship is the capstone of virtue and the building block of the political community, and a home is where the friendship takes root and dwells. For this reason if the homeless child finds a friend who has a home, the friend’s parents become surrogate parents, the home naturally extends to the homeless friend in whatever way it can. The home naturally extends to the homes of one’s friends. Home has something to do with possessions; is it strange that we risk our lives for our hearths? The hearth seems to be mere masonry, but the hearth has a mantle upon which to place gods, and a hearth may contain a fire to light a dark night and provide warmth against the cold. Virgil knew something when he depicted Aeneas carrying the hearth gods under his arm as he walked out of burning Troy to go and found a new city. Our hearth gods may be a simple cross flanked by pictures of grandchildren, but Aeneas’ instinct is still with us. If the fire in the hearth gets out of control we will know ourselves by what we risk our lives to take with us. We can only dwell in homes if they are maintained by virtuous action. The war I fight in defends not just my house but the home I share with my comrades in arms, my friends. There is no home without virtue. And virtue is the sweetness of life. Who could live in a mere house if a home were offered? To speak formally, the home is a final cause of all human activity; our building, our earning, our fighting and even our dying. All this in an effort to dwell at home. Let us talk no longer of housing the homeless. As if a yellow Amazon crate, however large, could ever match our deepest longings. Humans are not stuff. This is why certain French bureaucrats are right to embrace the arch-technocratic term san domicile fixe as opposed to sans abri. The technocrats display admirable humility: they recognize houselessness because they are ignorant of homes. Similarly in the Bay Area when the coronavirus panic descended a “shelter in place” order was issued. I suspect it is, in part, because the bureaucrats know nothing of homes and thus couldn’t issue a “stay at home” order. But we who know of homes must, if we are to solve the crisis, speak of homing the homeless. And the start of that task is to contemplate, in the deepest sense, what it is that a person is. To do this we must not think of the homeless as people different from ourselves. We must rather think about ourselves. What do I desire, and need, and love? We will see that the solution to the longing for home is much harder than we imagined, perhaps impossible in this world, where our aspirations and desires always outrun our circumstances. But at least, by realizing the true depths we sound in thinking of home, when we act we will not be naive. And when we act to solve only one problem, the problem of housing, we will have done nothing about the second, greater problem. The unhoused homeless are, of course, always working to solve this great problem themselves. The problem of not getting rained on is solved by that blue tarp. But this is merely practical—they know more than this. The hole cut in the chain link fences allows for them to dwell on the other side because privacy, however limited, is a goal of home. The trail through the Boston ivy as it reaches the bushes where they dwell is littered with the gathered debris of life, because home is where our stuff is. We, the homeless who have housed ourselves, would do well to attend to this honesty about human longings for home. Perhaps the homeless can only gesture towards home. But we must gesture to remain human in this homeless world. The encampment near my house was evacuated on the city’s orders recently. The residents were offered an option to move on. (Where to? They never say.) Either that or go to the city’s newest “planned” community, a group of plastic tool sheds on an abandoned lot. In a news interview with one of those being evacuated, I watched a young woman with the rough look of someone who has been homeless for some time. When asked where she planned to go now that her tiny house was demolished she responded, “I have no choice but to go to the Tuff Sheds.” Tuff Sheds, not homes. Colin Redemer is vice president of the Davenant Institute.

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