House and home - belonging at Christmas

At Christmas there is much talk of house and home. People are heading “home for the holidays.” Some are decorating their houses to celebrate the season. To others, home is that gathering of family and friends in an experience of belonging that only holidays brings about. Our desire for house and home reflect our human needs of physical care and relational belonging.

Housing is so critical to the global human experience, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that every human being on earth has a right to housing. I would suggest the charter implies belonging (a sense of "home") as well. House and home is a basic right of living.

And yet many go without. No house to decorate. No home to belong to.

Homeless camp in Abbotsford, BC.
Yet addressing the right to house and home is often rife with conflict. There is an ongoing debate in my own town regarding a proposed housing project. Currently people are currently camped in a downtown area, protesting the city’s approach to addressing homelessness. In the meantime, there is a proposed social housing project in same downtown area. Beyond the central location (“not in my neighborhood!”), the housing first model is troubling for many. A common refrain goes as follows: “What right do people have to housing if they aren’t willing to work for it!?!”

Citizens are torn between charity in providing housing and not wanting to further enable destructive behaviors. Yet from this perspective, housing is seen through the grid of personal property. House and home is
mine, something I work for and deserve (If I contribute appropriately to society).  

While I resonate with the concerns of my fellow citizens around safety and fiscal responsibility, I also wonder if the grid of our right to house and home is part of the problem. My right to a home can come at the expense of others’ right to the very same thing. We only agree on the right to housing under certain conditions. In this sense, housing isn’t a right but a privilege.
As I observe these issues unfold in my own city, I’ve been reading an insightful and challenging book, Beyond Homeless: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement by Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian Walsh. In the book the authors address these issues directly. I offer a few passages that have helped in my own engagement with homelessness in my city.

On housing, economics, and belonging:

“If economic life is all about fruitful and inclusive households, then ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to participate in the household is foundational. The reason we need social policies that will guarantee to everyone an adequate income, secure housing, equal access to healthcare, clean air and potable water, basic education, and a genuine opportunity for meaningful employment is not because the economy is a tightrope and we need to have a safety nets for those who fall; rather it it is because the economy is a household that demonstrates its health only in its care for all its members.”

On the housing first model (citing Ed Loring):

“Housing precedes employment because you can’t hold down a decent job without secure housing. Housing also precedes sobriety, because the despair of homelessness will often need alcohol or drugs to numb the pain. Housing precedes education, because you can’t do your homework sitting in a shelter or on a park bench. And housing precedes both physical and mental health, because homelessness is a breeding ground for disease, and it makes you go crazy. Housing is an absolutely essential precondition for human health and well-being.”

And lastly, a word to the church (quoting Ed Loring):

“No church ought to call someone to accept Jesus Christ until it is ready to bring that person into a house and assist in the arduous task of making that house into a home.”

And so as we rush to celebrate Christmas in house and home, as we experience of these “rights” of humanity, we can’t ignore the disparity and despair still present in our midst. Yes,  celebrate the joy of belonging in house and home. And then, work to ensure this belonging isn’t conditional or limited to economic privilege. House and home is right for all.

At Christmas especially, such belonging is at the heart of the good news of Jesus:

"Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, and yet he must be in it, his place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world."
-Thomas Merton


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