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What Home Means to the Homeless

What makes a home? Is it the materials we use to make the structure or the things we put in it? Is it the people who occupy the space or the memories we accumulate there? The question has vastly different meanings for people who have experienced homelessness, one of the most shameful manifestations of inequality in America.

I posed this question to the men and women living in a homeless encampment on the outskirts of Ithaca, N.Y., and at a nonprofit housing development for recently homeless men in nearby Newfield. I wanted to know what people who had lost so much had held on to. So I asked: Do you have something that brings you joy, something you can’t live without, something that has been with you through the years, something that makes this feel a little more like home?


I thought of the things I’ve accumulated over the years. Tucked away in a drawer, I still have the first pocketknife my father gave me. My mother keeps my favorite stuffed animal somewhere in her basement. My son has turned the pages of some of the same books I read when I was his age. I take these things, and the continuity and stability they represent, for granted.

Some of the people I talked with could identify similar objects. They showed me pictures of their kids or keepsakes like a Grateful Dead belt buckle.

But more often, people were confounded by the question. Cherishing material objects was a luxury few could afford.

Most people I encountered in the tick-infested swampland behind Walmart, an area called the Jungle, in tents and shacks cobbled together from scraps, had, at some point, lost everything. People who had been to prison saw their lives wiped out in an instant. They all knew the pain that comes with attachment and loss; many had gone through it several times.

Most said it was the people in their lives, not their possessions, who made this trash-strewn patch of mud feel like home.

Christine said her dog, Rebel, a muscular American standard bulldog, was the most important thing in her life. But after talking for a while she mentioned running water and how people take it for granted. For her, an outdoor solar shower was a distant approximation and a small comfort. On a nearby tree, a potted cactus dangled on a plastic hook and brought a touch of color to her beige patch of leafless landscape.

Sitting on a pile of wood shavings, a man who went by Lazy, but seemed anything but lazy, slid his belt from his oversized pants to show me its Grateful Dead buckle. He said it reminded him of going to concerts as a younger man and a time when life was kinder.

Jeff recalled being given a tin of his father’s belongings as a teenager and in it, the pendant he used to wear. It was the one thing that Jeff always kept close but at some point he lost it. He recreated it out of stone, and then wood, but even the replicas got lost or stolen, so he finally had it tattooed on his wrist so that he would never be without it.

Sitting in the dark, Cameron plucked out a sorrowful tune on an inscribed kalimba, a gift from his mother and a reminder of a painful chapter in their relationship.

Wild Bill’s penguin keychain light helped him open the door to his 1970s camper in the dark. Steven cherished a photograph of his infant son from the last time he saw him. The frame reads “Christmas 2013.” Fred wore an artist’s rendition of himself in the form of a skull on his left middle finger, one of many rings he never removed. They represent a timeline of his life’s travels and memories. Ozy showed me a heavy blue ball he had kept for 20 years that reminded him of his dog, Shandi.

Many people spoke about the animals in their lives as the loyal and nonjudgmental companions that helped them weather the toughest times, offering unconditional love and security.

Some people spoke about items less for their sentimental value than for their utility.

As I left the Jungle, Christine pointed out a robin’s nest in a shopping cart. A pair of chicks huddled together between cans of vegetable soup, awaiting their mother’s return. Rebel came over to investigate. We wondered why the birds would choose this spot for their nest, so cold and stark and vulnerable.

It reminded me of my own misconceptions of what makes a home a home in a world so different from my own.

Source: NY times

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