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Home sweet home turns sour


Homelessness week marks a failure in our society. In recent years the failure has become a scandal. Once to have a home was seen as a right. Now it is seen as a privilege. The price of homes has risen enormously. Renting has also become more expensive as people compete for fewer houses. In rural areas to which many people have moved during the Covid Epidemic, local people are often priced out of the housing market. More people are forced to sleep in their cars and on the streets. At the same time, however, the houses left unoccupied are more than sufficient to provide a home for all who lack it.

There are many reasons why it is so hard to find a place in which to live. They include a change in attitude, encouraged by government policy, from seeing homes as shelter to seeing them as wealth. People take out heavy loans to buy houses, which in turn raises prices. At the same time governments that once took responsibility for housing people with little or no income have stopped building new houses and have even sold existing stock. When immigration resumes we can expect even greater pressure on shelter and on rental prices.

It is easy to view homelessness from a distance as only a failure of economic policy and of the political responsibility to deliver material goods. A home, however, is more than a house. It connotes connections that are central to humanity. Left without a home people are deprived of more than bricks and mortar. They are diminished in their humanity. This can be seen if we look at some of the associations of home.

A larger view of a home sees it first of all as a shelter. Whether a tent for nomads or a palace for kings it protects us from wind, rain and sun, from wild animals and from robbers. It is a source of security. Without this intermediary between ourselves and the world of the stranger we are left insecure and exposed.

A home also connects us to a place. For Indigenous Australians home is the particular area of land with its distinctive features to which they belong. For others a home defines the piece of earth on which it is built as our own and so connects us with the environment in which we live. It anchors us to place. Without it we are rootless, wanderers.


'We should demand that our governments take responsibility for shaping an economy that will discourage people from treating property as an investment and will allow people to buy or rent housing cheaply.' 


A home is also a place of connection to neighbours, shops, schools and society. It gives us an address that links us to government and enables us to relate to society. At a deeper level a stable home connects us with our personal and family history. It holds the symbols of earlier homes and of the significant persons and events in our lives. For that reason leaving home can be experienced as nostalgia – an ache for home. The remembrance of home then becomes rich in sentiment. The opening lines of the popular early nineteenth century song ‘Home, sweet home’ caught this sentiment perfectly. 

Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,

Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home’. 

The second verse of the song is similarly sentimental in its idealisation of home as a place of happiness now lost:

Oh give me my lowly thatched cottage again
The birds singing gaily that came at my call
And gave me the peace of mind dearer than all.

Home also suggests a connection to people of like mind and values, to neighbourhood. This kind of connection is captured in Norman Rockwell’s wishful paintings of life in United States suburbs after the end of the Second World War. In his images homes are open places that encourage trusting relationships with people in neighbouring homes. Although his paintings now seem nostalgic when seen from the perspective of economic inequality and insecurity that beset many suburbs, they testify to the desire that homes should be like this.

Finally a home connotes a kind of possession, whether formalised in purchase, loan, rent or other forms of agreement. It supposes a stable, if temporary, relationship between the home and the people who live in it. This enables them to decorate the house, attend to the garden, and put their own face on the home. Possession, of course, can also corrupt into greed, that sees the home purely in terms of money value or status, and in which the only salient relationship is to self.

This overview of the rich human relationships involved in the home and of our deep personal investment in it helps us to imagine what we lose as persons, and not purely as property owners, if we have no place in which to live. It complements imaginatively such admirable ventures during Homelessness week as the Vinnies sleep-outs in which many people prominent in public life listen to homeless people tell their stories and then themselves sleep on the floor. These events touch the imagination of those who take part and help people to appreciate what it means to sleep rough on the city streets on a cold winter night. They also evoke empathy and generosity to the homeless.

Short and voluntary experiences of homelessness, however, show only part what it means to have nowhere to live. To be homeless cuts connections. If you have no fixed address you will miss mail, will find it hard to have things delivered, to have friends and family visit you, and to access government services. You will move often from place to place; your children will change schools, miss friends and experience only passing relationships. Even connections with the internet will become more difficult and expensive. With no kitchen, food will be expensive, hospitality impossible; with no laundry or bathroom it will be hard to maintain hygiene and clean clothing.

For such reasons many people who live precariously see secure housing as their major need. Insecurity contributes to mental illness and withdrawal from society.

In modern societies people have a right to shelter. Stable accommodation is necessary if we are to live fully as human beings with our dignity respected.  Without it we shrink as persons, we lose touch with friends and family, and the connections with society that are central to our lives become precarious. We should demand that our governments take responsibility for shaping an economy that will discourage people from treating property as an investment and will allow people to buy or rent housing cheaply. They should also make it a priority to build social housing for those who need it.  





Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: A homeless girl sleeps on the ground by a sign asking for food and clothing at Pitt Street Mall in Sydney's CBD. (Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Homelessness, Covid-19, Housing



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Existing comments

why does so little seem to be done for people without a home? In Canberra some Government buildings seem to have been empty for ages when people are sleeping wherever they can. Unoccupied Government office buildings could surely be converted into hostels with modifications to washrooms to include showers. This situation must not be allowed to continue.

Mary Samara-Wickrama | 04 August 2022  

When I left my home and my family/I was no more than a boy/In the company of strangers/In the quiet of a railway station running scared/Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters/Where the ragged people go/Looking for the places only they would know (“The Boxer” Paul Simon). These words encapsulate the precariousness and vulnerability of homelessness. But also a kind of sad resourcefulness. For some people who live in stable housing ‘home’ may mean a state of being where they are comfortable e.g. a writer with their pen, paper or typewriter. For others, it will be the major investment of their lives both in terms of shelter but also as a buffer against the elements, both physical and psychological. Housing is a basic right. It doesn’t need to be Windsor Castle…just a castle (of sorts).

Pam | 04 August 2022  

'A home .. . . is more than a house.' Andrew's keen awareness of this reality highlights the critical importance of government prioritizing support for family, affirmed in Catholic social teaching as society's basic unit.

John RD | 05 August 2022  

Your analysis indicates that homelessness implies much more than being without a structure that provides comfort and protection from the elements. I have always thought that the homeless, if not suffering from a mental disorder, exist only because of loss of family, tribal belonging and abandonment by others. I often wonder where the families are - surely the homeless street dweller is not often the only remaining living member of a human family. Society's management of their predicament is more typical of a self=interested "me not you" attitude. Families should care for family members and if that member is dissociated from reality then and only then should the state be required to be the responsible carer.

john frawley | 05 August 2022  

A stunning, characteristically conscience-jogging piece, thanks Andy, on what a home should mean. At first it alerted me to its Latin etymology, a signifier for the escapist tricks the mind plays, reminding me of a hilarious scene in Monty Python's 'Life of Brian' featuring 'Domus' and involving a Roman centurion giving the title character an impromptu Latin lesson as he corrects the grammar of Brian's 'Romans Go Home' graffiti: a tangential irrelevance that often occurs to the initially avoidant.

Then reality kicked in when I remembered, while walking back to my digs along St Giles, that I once saw what I mistakenly took to be a drunken fellow student, sprawled across a pavement. Helping him to his feet, I naively asked: 'Time to go home?' 'I haven't got one', he replied!

I suspect that such experiences and dilemmas confront us all, regardless of appended and secondary considerations, such as those of Catholic Social Teaching and various theories of the purposes of the state. These occur to me as attempts to overlay a somewhat obtuse and unbearably imported 'cover' of pious justification for the dehumanisation associated with homelessness.

Ask anybody with the experience of a Vinnies sleep-out and they'll tell us!

Michael Furtado | 08 August 2022  

There are successful programs to house the homeless. We need to look at those successes and identify the reasons for their success. I’d suggest that two essential elements are
1. a sufficient supply of affordable and dignified social housing.
2. Target accompaniment on the way back to stability. Moving long-term unhoused people -families - back under a roof isn’t enough. We need people committed to helping them to reintegrate into the nitty-gritty of living together and maintaining the dignity and safety of their home.
There are programs like this. They’re very expensive, but they work.

Joan Seymour | 10 August 2022  

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