The Meaning of Home

Over the last decade or so, a lot of people have become confused about the difference between a home and an investment. They sit at dinner parties and talk about how much their house has gone up in value since they bought it. They talk about how it’s an investment. They don’t talk about it as a place to live. Some brag about flipping, about buying, making a few improvements to give a house curb appeal, then selling it.

Maybe that’s why, as a society, we’ve lost the ability to understand what it means not to have a home.

My grandparents understood what it meant to lose a home. My grandfather had fought in WWI. He’d been wounded, then gassed. He suffered from the damage all his life. When he got back to Canada after the war, he married my grandmother. They bought a house. Two storey, brick. In a nice working class neighbourhood. But then there was a depression and his wages got cut and cut again. He couldn’t pay the mortgage. The bank foreclosed. I think that hurt more the rest of his life that the shrapnel wounds and the mustard gas.

My grandparents were lucky, I guess. They were able to move to a smaller house in a poorer neighbourhood. They weren’t homeless. When that mortgage was paid and they had some savings, they bought a lot and had a house built. It was small. Two bedrooms, a small kitchen and living room. One bathroom. No dining room. It was enough.

It wasn’t an investment. It was their home. They lived out their lives there. For a number of years, I lived with them. It was my home, too. It had a small front yard and a garden at the back. I felt safe there, protected, comforted. Upwardly mobile types wouldn’t have given it a first glance, never mind a second glance.

When I was getting married, the first question was where are we going to live? It came before every other decision. What can we afford? What’s available? We searched the newspaper. We went looking at apartments. When we found a converted apartment in the top of a house, we were thrilled. We had a place. We didn’t own it but we had good landlords who lived just across the street.

As I changed jobs, went to graduate school, found more jobs, we moved many times. Always, the first question was where are we going to live? Sometimes we couldn’t afford to live where we wanted to but we could always afford to live somewhere. We were never homeless. We always had a place. At first, our furniture would fit into the back of our station wagon. It didn’t matter. When it was all in place, we were at home.

People need a place to call their own. A doorwell and a shopping cart aren’t a home. A dumpster isn’t a home, not even if you sleep in it every night. Under a loading dock isn’t a home. None of those are home. They’re not even a house. They’re definitely not an investment. A family living in a car isn’t living at home.

When I was a kid, my parents used to go north to commercial fish on Lake Winnipeg. They paid people to give me board and room. Even though they were paid, nobody wanted an extra kid. Sometimes, I was moved every two weeks. Nobody was ever bad to me. Most people were very kind. But I knew I was living in someone else’s house and it wasn’t my home. Our home sat empty. I used to sneak into it through a basement window and, even though there was no heat, I’d wrap myself in a comforter and sleep or read my comic books or play with one of my toys. You see, this wasn’t just an empty house. It was my home.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in Canada who don’t have that option. They don’t have an empty house, unheated or not, in which to read or to keep their belongings. They don’t have a home where they can feel safe.

Something is wrong when we’ve allowed rules to be made that deprive people of the ability to have homes. When families consider themselves lucky if they get to live in a motel for a time. When homes are no longer homes but investments.

Dare to look

When I recently checked into the Delta, the woman checking me in said, “I’ll show you on a map the most direct route to where you are giving your reading. However, it goes through the East Side. There are a lot of homeless people there. Don’t worry, they’re harmless. They won’t hurt you. Just don’t look.”

Don’t look. Don’t look. That’s always the message, isn’t it? Don’t look.

The suite at the Delta was beautiful. A bedroom with a big TV. A living room. A bathroom. A small fridge. A desk and chair. An easy chair. A good sized closet. An iron and ironing board. A person could live there. They had a promotion on so I got it cheap.

As I passed through the East side on my way to my reading, I looked. I looked long and hard. I saw hundreds of homeless people. I saw what I never expected to see in Canada. A line of people more than a block long waiting to get a free meal from a tent soup-kitchen. People with shopping carts piled high with their belongings. A lot of these people are mentally ill. No one chooses to be mentally ill. No one says, “Oh, goody. I’m going to mentally ill. Lucky me. I’m going to be free to live on the street because I don’t have the capacity to take my pills every day. I get to keep my belongings in a grocery cart. I get to sleep in doorways. I get to compete in dumpster diving competitions.”

No one says that.

Some of these people are drug addicts or alcoholics. Some of them are just unemployed and can’t pay for an apartment in Vancouver. Even some full-time employed can’t afford an apartment in Vancouver.

Or Victoria. Or Toronto. Or lots of other places.

Some of these people are extremely difficult to deal with. Mental illness and addiction are difficult to deal with.

But not looking shows the mentality of a socio-path. I insist you look. That’s my job as a writer. To make you look.

The Business Cycle usually gets it right. It now says that we are going into or have already entered another recession. That means there are going to be longer lineups at the food kitchens. There are going to be more people whose home is a doorway and whose vehicle is a shopping cart. These won’t be the mentally ill, the mentally retarded. These will be those let go as companies cut back even more. You may be one of them. In the USA, tent cities made up of the unemployed are appearing. Unemployment benefits are running out. It may be you that I’m told not to look at as I drive by.

There is a new report out from England. At 8.1% unemployment is at a 17 year high. The unemployment of young people, 16-24, is at a record high of 991,000. Half of the people in this age group are unemployed. 150,000 lost their jobs in the last month.

Future Shop has large screen TVs at 1,000 dollars and up. Up being around 4,000 dollars. As unemployment in Canada moves up, who is going to buy these TVs? Who is going to buy automobiles at forty to sixty thousand dollars or houses at $600,000.00. If no one is buying them, the people producing them are going to be laid off.

Canada has been sheltered from the worst of the last recession but our prosperity comes from natural resources. Those unemployed people in England aren’t going to be buying anything made from our exports. Nor are the unemployed in Greece, or Spain, or Italy, or Portugal.

What the rooms at the Delta show is that there are places for people to live. Really nice places. Lack of places to live isn’t the problem. It’s the fact that the people who need places to live haven’t got the money to pay the rent. Unemployment benefits, welfare, disability benefits won’t pay for rooms in Vancouver. It’s a bit like the Irish potato famine. All those people didn’t need to die of starvation. There was food. They just couldn’t afford it. So it was shipped to England.

As the lines grow longer at the food kitchens, as more downtown doorways become bedrooms, as more shopping carts become the vehicles of the unemployed, should we just not look? When you’re in that line up or sitting on the street, how will you feel about being invisible?