What is a home?
by Trevor Locke
Moving home was an experience I endured recently; I say ‘endured’ because it was forced upon me. I did not choose it freely. The experience did, however, throw up the whole issue about having a home and what being made to leave it does to you.
My home was a flat in the centre of town, up to early January when I moved out from it to another flat, about a mile away. When I was told to leave my home I was shocked and unsettled; it was much more than just being notified that I would lose my dwelling place. It was an assault on my life, on me as a person.
What weighed on my mind was the loss of my home. This article was born from a desire to work through that experience and to sort out in my mind what we mean by a ‘home.’ It is all very well talking about housing or accommodation (as I did in my articles on house bricks¹ and the book on housing policy³ (which I have just finished.) The idea of a home is both emotional and philosophical and, I suspect, social, cultural and psychological. What we call our home has changed over time and it is something that differs from one culture and one country to another. That is the academic in me talking. Some people are homely, they are home-makers, others are not that bothered. I am the former. Since I was a teenager I have always wanted not to just tidy my room but to decorate it and set it out the way I like it. For most of my adult life (since I parted company with my parents) I have lived in a home of my own; there were periods when I was a lodger in someone else’s home and a very short period of time when I was a homeless teenager. There was also a period (in my adult life) when I was living in a building where I could not make a home and another period when I lived in the home of someone else. I say this because it reveals where I am coming from in this article.
This article was motivated from personal experience; I will come back to that later but for the moment I want to get into the substance of the issue. A home is a place, a space, where we live, where we spend our time and where we carry out basic functions of living – eating, washing, cleaning, sleeping… all the things we have to do to survive from day today. A home is almost an emotional mooring and a place for social life with our family and our friends. A home should be a place that provides us with safety and security. It can also be a place where we work; more and more people are working at home, either those who are employed and or those who run small businesses. In times gone by, living and working in the same premises was more common than it is now or has been in recent decades. Many people live and work in the same space or place: farmers, for example. Some people are residential workers, such as hotel staff, those who work in institutions. A home can serve many purposes but the common denominator is that provides the location for basic domestic amenities – a place to sleep, a place to cook, a place to wash and so on. If you go out to work, to do a job, having a home is pretty much essential. It is difficult (if not impossible) to hold down a job if you have nowhere to live or if your accommodation is inadequate or insufficient for your needs.
Most human beings live together in family groups; the home is the focus of family life. People who are not in families, single people, use the home as a place for socialising and for displaying their status, tastes and identity. The kind of home we have marks us out. Those who own their own homes have a special status in our society that confers on them benefits not widely enjoyed by those who rent. Access to banking or financial services sometimes varies according to what kind of status people have, such as householders, renters, etc. Access to utilities (electricity, gas, water) might also be according to housing status. Credit scoring companies look at how many addresses people have had over a period of time. They take moving and changing addresses to be an indicator of stability and financial reliability (or otherwise.)
Can we choose where to live? Well, we can if we have money (if we are wealthy enough to exercise such choice) and if we are adult (not forced to live with our parents) and if we are single and can make our own choices without having to negotiate with a partner. In many cases, for most people, the choice of where to live is related to where they work; many people commute to work (I did once or twice during my working life.) I happen to live in Leicester; I came here because I was offered a job that I wanted and moved to the city from Manchester (where I was living and studying at the time.) I did not choose to come to Leicester. I chose the job I wanted to do and, when I was fortunate enough to get it, I moved to the town where it was located.
The home can be a space for socialising with family and friends; it can also provide a space into which one can retreat from the world when needing to. If you are lucky you can choose when to fill your home with people and when you can sit back and enjoy the peace and solitude of your own space. Moving might be a choice; some people move to another country when they retire – a condominium by the sea in Spain perhaps. Some people move to a new town seeking a new life. I certainly did when I left the place where I was born and moved to London in search of a new life². Some people feel trapped, unable to leave, unable to escape, denied the freedom to seek a new life elsewhere, because of poverty, because of family ties, because they are tied to a job.
Moving home can be expensive; that is why many people are rooted to the spot. Those trapped in poverty could seek a better life elsewhere but lack of funds often makes that prohibitive. Having a home of your own is a privilege but not one enjoyed by everybody, especially those who have to share their home with others, their family members or the people they have to share with.
Homelessness can be, and for most people is, a debilitating experience. Having nowhere to live makes it almost impossible to find work and earn money to pay for a home. Homelessness can mean living on the streets (thinking mainly of the UK) or not having the right kind of housing. I know that from personal experience. Being homeless of frequently the cause of mental ill-health and those who experience long-term homelessness live shorter lives.
How do we make a home? Once we have accommodation, how do we make a home in it? Not everyone has a sense of homeliness. Some people lack that capability for home-making that leads others to organise the space around them into an environment that is self-fulfilling and which expresses their identity both to them and to their visitors. I am a home-maker; a homely person. I have made a house into a home (about three times I think.) If I move to a new place, I set about making it my personal space. I personalise my dwelling. I put up pictures, organise my books and CDs, set out the ornaments and mementoes that mean something to me. I arrange the furniture the way I like it (I live alone) and set my house plants out to make the place look nice. This is how we organise our space to express who we are and what is meaningful to us. In the kitchen we can organise the crockery and the cupboards; those keen on cooking will display jars of herbs, place plants on the window sill. In the bathroom, we can have a place for our favourite bits and pieces, bottles, toothbrush holders. In the lounge, we might have a display cabinet or a shelf or sideboard where we can place pictures or souvenirs (every place has its thing and everything has its place.) This sounds all very gentile, middle class and western. I am sure that things work differently in other cultures. I remember writing about Le Corbusier’s concept of the ‘machine for living’; trying to organise everything so that is works efficiently. Whatever we think a home should be, we need a personal space that we can control. In some cases, mental ill-health results in people being unable to organise their accommodation into a home. A dwelling that lacks security and stability, where personalisation is impossible, could result in mental ill-health. Having a home is essential to well-being.
A home – as of right
The home is a fundamental part of our life, our identity, our place in the world. Where we live and how we live are things that mark us out as people. It should be the case that people have a right to housing, but I would go beyond that and say that everyone should have a right to a home. That right must protect people – not just those who are vulnerable but everyone. Having a home should not be a privilege or a matter of luck any more than it should depend on our wealth or lack of it. What sort of accommodation or housing we have will depend on our financial circumstances but I believe that everyone should have a home, as a right. Having a home is a (or should be) a basic human right. It is something that should be enshrined in law and protected by legislation; this is something more than just having access to housing. Current policy and legal practice deal in housing but because a home is not defined in law and has no quantifiable value, it is not protected. This is an issue I discussed in my book³ where I looked at the issue of renting and the lack of security of tenure.
The home and well-being
Having a home is central to one’s quality of life and well-being. A home should provide security, stability, those facilities that are basic to organised and civilised living, a place where one’s identity can be expressed and a space in which recreation and entertainment can be pursued. Even those who are nomads take their homes with them when they move. A home is a place where you can experience your greatest pleasures, whether ‘you’ is a group or a single individual. There is a sense in which a home is a place to dwell, a shelter from the elements but more significantly a place where roots are laid; in this sense, a home is an emotional base, either a space for celebrating social existence or for escaping from it. Having a home and being at home creates well being and confirms identity. Those who have a home can thrive, where health and happiness can be nurtured. I was particularly moved by stories I saw on the TV news about very elderly people who were moved out of the care homes in which they were living (because the Council wanted to close down the establishment) and died shortly afterwards. It is for these reasons that a home should be a right, not a privilege.
More articles on this subject and are planned. The personal experience I referred to earlier is something I will come back to in another instalment.
¹ Housing: history, policy and practice. A series of four articles under the rubric house bricks, published in Arts in Leicestershire magazine, 2015.
² My autobiography recalls my migration to London in the 1960s, in The Streets of London.
³ Housing: approaches to policy, 2016, forthcoming