Homelessness and the Concept of Home

Jan 28, 2015

Credit kefiproject.org

This month’s episode of In Perspective explores what it means to be displaced or without a home. Our new roundtable participants ask: How do we define “home”? Is it a house? Is it family, a sense of community? Is it a place or a feeling?

The discussants share their perspectives, from the practical concerns of living on the streets of Austin, to the role of creative production in dealing with homelessness, to challenging notions of displacement and transience as unnatural. Ultimately, the discussion turns toward the ways in which our perceptions of home and homelessness influence our views on immigration, the need for refuge, and national identity.

Paul Adams is an associate professor of Geography at UT-Austin. Here, he discusses the ways in which we form ideas about home by normalizing borders. He sees borders, both within and surrounding us, as unstable, rather than as static, mapped lines. Borders are constantly being recreated and altered, which suggests that a sense of home must be constantly in flux and that we must be working to recreate “home” wherever we might be.

Alan Graham is the president of the Austin non-profit Mobile Loaves and Fishes.  He provides an advocate’s perspective on the lived experiences of homelessness in Austin. He relays the mission of Mobile Loaves and Fishes to connect the homeless persons of the city to each other and to others with whom they might find community. For him, homelessness is to be cast out of society, to be without a sense of belonging. And Mobile Loaves and Fishes aims to change both our perceptions of homeless persons and the fact of homelessness in Austin.  

Susan Quesal is a doctoral student in American Studies at UT-Austin. Her work focuses on the relationship between Black Americans and the concept of home. She explores how the historical formations of home in plantation slavery might impact 20th century novels, photography, and media created by Black artists and thinkers. Here, she explains the function of capitalism as a link in the relationship between homelessness and immigration.

Dominique Serrand and Steven Epp are the artistic directors of The Moving Company, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Currently, they are working in collaboration with students at UT-Austin to produce Refugia—“an investigation into the lives of those who find themselves at the crossroads of transition, navigating life’s margins.” In this discussion, Serrand encourages us to consider that it isn’t transience or homelessness per se, but being forced to move or cast out from one’s home that is unnatural. Epp reminds us that immigration is an American story and should remain central to American identity.

What’s your perspective?

While there seems to be some agreement here that home extends far beyond the construction of a few walls, Adams also notes the significance of objects to our sense of home. If when we travel we take aspects of our home environments with us and, if we’re lucky, we bring back souvenirs to add to those environments a sense of where we’ve been, then home is not only something we produce socially or emotionally. It also resides in the meaning with which we imbue certain objects and places. Home, which might have seemed such a simple comfortable concept is revealed to be quite complex indeed. Do you feel at home? What might make you feel so?

Check back next month for our fifth In Perspective roundtable.