redefining home

When I was invited to take part in a CBC radio panel on homelessness this week, it never occurred to me that the issue would be connected to two other events -- the celebration of Earth Day on April 22, and the release of the draft land-use plan for the Pe

When I was invited to take part in a CBC radio panel on homelessness this week, it never occurred to me that the issue would be connected to two other events—the celebration of Earth Day on April 22, and the release of the draft land-use plan for the Peel River Watershed. Until I started thinking about them, that is. And that’s when they all coalesced around one image: home.

I’m a writer of fiction; I think in images. So I’d like to ask you to undertake an imaginative exercise. What does the word “home” mean to you? Think of all the sayings that help define home: “Home is where the heart is.”“A man’s home is his castle.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe called it “life’s undress rehearsal, its backroom, its dressing room.” The abstractions that define a home—safety, security, warmth, love—take concrete form in our own specific families, our own particular houses or apartments.

Yet there are currently a staggering quarter-million Canadians who are homeless, and it’s a number that’s rising dramatically in the current recession. In her book Dying for a Home: Homeless Activists Speak Out, Toronto street nurse Cathy Crowe invites us to imagine what that statistic means.

“Picture a refugee camp,” she says. “A quarter of a million people. Ten thousand are children. … Tens of thousands stay with family or friends. Another 2,000 sleep rough—in cars, on grates, in parks, by riverbeds, under bridges, in the woods. Some are squatting in empty buildings and old factories, or building shantytowns and tent cities. They sometimes remain there for years, enduring the cold, harsh Canadian winters.”

It’s a powerful and horrifying scene, one we shouldn’t have to imagine happening in a rich country like Canada. It’s also an image that frightens us. Many of us know that we, too, are just a paycheque or two away from being inhabitants of that refugee camp—and more and more people are entering all the time.

Cathy Crowe herself describes how she made the connection between homelessness and the economy.

“I remember one day at our clinic at the Dixon Hall Shelter we began to see guys from the Inglis (appliance manufacturing) plant. The plant had been closed, the men had lost their jobs and there they were, their savings used up, and forced to use a shelter. There it was, right in front of me, not the fact that they needed medication for a cold, or had a rash from scabies. My nursing diagnosis: side effect of Free Trade.”

Crowe’s book is particularly effective because it includes the life stories, in their own words, of a number of homeless activists. Instead of reading statistics about an abstract issue—homelessness—we walk in the shoes of these men and women. In the process we’re forced to confront our own stereotypes—for example, that most homeless people are mentally ill, or that many choose to sleep outside.

Adequate housing, in fact, was recognized 60 years ago as a basic human right. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care, and necessary social services.”

David Hulchanski, director of the Centre for Urban and Community Studies at the University of Toronto, says that the causes of homelessness are complex, but the solution is not. “The problem (of homelessness) is rooted in the failure of Canada, its provinces and municipalities, to address its poverty and affordable housing problems,” he says. I would add that, at bottom, it’s a failure of imagination and empathy—a failure to understand what the lack of a home feels like and what that might do to a person’s soul.

Being “at home” on Earth ought to be the birthright of every being, human and animal. Yet if we pretend we’re somewhere in outer space, looking at our home planet through a gigantic telescope, large parts of it resemble Cathy Crowe’s refugee camp. Large parts of it are overcrowded, disease-ridden and unsafe. The accelerating pace of climate change is ensuring that many animal species, and not only humans, are becoming “homeless,” too.

I’m skeptical about celebratory “days,” but the yearly observance of Earth Day at least draws our attention to the home we all share. Whatever we think of the proposed Peel Watershed plan (and so far only the highlights have been released), 40 years of Earth Day events have helped increase our awareness that we cannot take our planetary home for granted.

But full awareness requires that we find different words and images to think about and describe this planet we call home. It requires that we re-imagine landscapes like the Peel. The watershed is described on the commission’s website as “a vast unpopulated area in northeastern Yukon.” Unpopulated? There may be few human beings living there, but for many northern birds and animals (not to mention trees and plants), it’s home. It’s still the traditional home of several First Nation peoples, too.

By using language that suggests that wilderness areas, because they lack people, are “empty,” we perpetuate the idea that we humans can use such areas at will. That’s the mindset of colonizers. What we need on such commissions are not only scientists and government representatives, but writers and artists who can help us find different ways to envision “wilderness.”

So let’s undertake a final imaginative exercise. Let’s imagine an Earth on which we are all “at home”—where all living beings are appropriately and safely housed. Blue-sky thinking? Perhaps. But who are the real dreamers—the ones who imagine such a possibility, or those supposedly realistic, pragmatic individuals who, in the last 20 years, dreamed up a free-market fantasy of endless wealth creation?

My own starting image for making Earth “homely” again is a tree—a huge, leafy oak, say, or perhaps a boreal forest species like spruce.

A simple enough image, yet trees have been powerful symbols of life in many different cultures for millennia. A beautiful verse from Revelation, describing the tree of life in paradise, says: “The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”


single image seems powerless, doesn’t it? Yet many writers will tell you that their novels and short stories started with nothing more. Stories rarely arrive wholesale. We have to tease them out, patch them together, work step by step. That’s how our future will be generated, too

Writer Patricia Robertson’s latest book is The Goldfish Dancer: Stories and Novellas. Her column appears on the last Friday of each month.