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.