By Donella Meadows
–December 22, 1988–
Last Christmas I was homeless, in a way, for awhile. I FELT homeless anyway, and the pain was sharp enough to give me a small insight — perhaps as much as we who have never really lacked a home can have — of what homelessness means and why it demands a larger response than building shelters.
In fact I had a welcoming roof over my head. I was well fed. I was within reach of family and friends. Those who are actually, chronically homeless would have traded places with me in a minute.
But I had left my home of 16 years, and I didn’t expect to return. I was staying in someone else’s house, much nicer than my own. But not my own.
I had planned to serve at a community dinner for the less fortunate. You know the kind — lots of turkey in a church basement with metal folding chairs and cheap tinsel and a singing of Christmas carols after the meal. I wonder if the recipients of those dinners realize what a gift they are giving the donors. For years I had been the Dispenser of Good Things, the baker of cookies, the server of large, festive dinners. I needed to fill that role on Christmas Day. If I couldn’t, I wouldn’t quite know who I was.
The community dinner was canceled, and there I was, without an identity. I dropped in at friends’ houses. I received their kindness with nothing to give. I was miserable. I did a lot of meditating about what that word “home” means, how I would find it again, and how those who are truly homeless could ever come close to finding it.
In economic terms home is a place to accumulate the physical things that support you in leading a productive life. Home is where you wash clothes, cook food, and restore yourself to go out and do your work in the world.
Most of us never think how impossible it is to get ahead without a simple place to keep things. Street-dwellers in India pay up to half their meager incomes for firewood to burn in open cooking fires. Helping agencies once tried to give them small, portable stoves that use half as much fuel, but there was no place to store them. The stoves were all stolen.
Home is the one place you can arrange to suit your own pleasure. It’s where you can keep paintings or pets or hobbies. Home can be an outward expression of your inner landscape, a statement to the world of who you think you are, or who you’d like to be.
That may seem a trivial purpose, but the most decrepit shanties in the worst slums have green plants growing out of tin cans or colorful magazine pictures on the wall. Some touch of beauty and cheer and self-expression, however humble, is a need nearly as basic as shelter from the rain.
Home is where you can be exactly who you are without holding back and without apology. Those who live with you may not approve in every detail, but at least they’re not surprised. They’re used to you. That’s a comfort beyond price. Imagine being on display, before strangers, on the street, every hour of the day.
Home is a place you can share with friends. Without a home you can hardly be hospitable. Those who wander the streets exhibit their own kinds of generosity, but their repertoire for sharing is severely limited. They can’t even have the small pleasure of inviting someone in for a cup of tea or a beer.
This Christmas, with joy and gratitude, I am back home. And I am left with the understanding that homelessness deprives people of far more than shelter. They have no place from which to be productive and giving, to be restored, to be welcomed, to be themselves, to give physical expression to their personalities. The homeless are, quite simply, deprived of their humanity. Restoring that to them requires more than grudging public expenditure and warehouses where they can sleep at night.
I have mused often over the words of Mother Theresa: “Much of the suffering in the world is caused because of want of food, want of clothes, but it is caused even more because of want of love. Many people are not only naked for a piece of cloth, they are naked without human dignity that has been stolen from them. Homelessness is not only being without a house, but is also being dejected, unwanted, unloved, uncared for. The greatest injustice we have done to our poor people is that we have forgotten to treat them with respect, with dignity, as children of God.”
The homeless are not all easy to love. Some of them surrendered their dignity long ago to alcohol, drugs, dementia, or impenetrable hostility. But then again some of them are children. Mother Theresa would scoop them all up into her undiscriminating love, but she’s a saint. I’m no saint, and I don’t know the solution for homelessness. What I do know is that it requires more than an impersonal institution that removes the homeless from our sight and our minds. It requires some attention, some engagement from all of us, some willingness to focus on homeless people not as statistics but as individuals, needing care, needing to be welcomed back as full members of the human race.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988