The phrase “Many are houseless, not homeless” stuck in my mind after meeting the Director of an organisation providing services for women in one of San Francisco’s counties.
She had said this in response to my observation of there being many homeless people in the city. This image ended up being one of the enduring memories of my week-long work trip to this beautiful town. Walking past the lines of men and women waiting to enter their daily place of shelter for the night, I was keenly aware that I was averting my gaze. However, I could not help but overhear their loud arguments, and be confronted by their presence as well as the lingering smells of urea and filth.
I had been to this city almost 30 years ago and could well identify with the sentiments of the song ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’. I admire the well-laid streets with their famous trams, and the iconic architecture that gives this American city its distinctive look, like the Coit Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge.
But what has changed today is the number of people who are living rough. They gather in some sections of downtown during dawn and dusk, very often the first of the city dwellers seen shuffling about.
“Houseless, not homeless”, what an odd juxtaposition of words and ideas! How can people be without houses and yet not homeless? It questioned my concept of what a home meant.
Must a home be made of brick and mortar, and not cardboard boxes and a sleeping bag? Must it be in a fixed location, or could it be a mobile one as evidenced by how many had all their worldly possessions piled on shopping carts?
Who should be the other residents of a home? Should it be only family members whom one shares blood ties or members of a community whom one identifies with?
The phrase “houseless, not homeless” reminds well-meaning do-gooders that rather than attempting to place these homeless folks into clean and sterile – but also characterless – housing, perhaps we should take the time to understand their circumstances and choices.
Some homeless individuals have been abandoned, rejected, and hurt by the very individuals who should care for them – their families. So after such traumatic experiences, they may be wary of receiving help from strangers. They may choose to live in settings that are physically substandard, but nevertheless are places chosen by them.
This exercise of their free will may be just as important to them as having a roof over their heads, or having clean running water.
Singaporeans in general may find it hard to understand the problem of homelessness. After all, we are a nation that prides itself on being able to provide public housing to most of its population. We have one of the highest proportions of home-owners within the citizenry, albeit many are still paying for their mortgages.
But we do have our homeless too. They sleep in void decks, in stairwells, under flyovers, and along our beaches. Many more are ‘homeless’ even though they may stay with their families; these are the elderly who are lonely even though they live with their children. There are also those with disabilities, whether physical, intellectual, or mental. They live shut-in lives within their own rooms, not speaking to anyone for days, even though they live within close proximity to dozens of other flat dwellers.
For these individuals, they may be living in the physical definition of a home, but they may as well be ‘homeless’, as there is little familial and emotional exchange with others. A relational definition of a home, then, means living in a place where one feels safe, valued, and acknowledged as a person.
As a community of believers, and as people who have been blessed with so much, what should be our response to these troubled individuals?
As Advent approaches, the Christmas story reminds us that the Christ child and His family were once homeless, too. May it prompt us to spare a thought for people who are in this sorry plight.
Benny Bong –
has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award in 2011 and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.
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