My phone vibrated with the text from Savannah, a woman in her mid-20’s, who wrote:
I have three more months of pregnancy and have nowhere to live or to go. It’s embarrassing for me to know I’m going through this especially being pregnant…. I’ve been staying place to place at friend’s houses. I was with the father of my child and a lot happened that’s not safe for me to be in. I have insurance, baby doctor everything but a home with a stable environment.
A recent documentary from FRONTLINE and NPR investigating the affordable housing crisis makes it clear that Savannah is not alone. According to an analysis by the National Low Income Housing Coalition in 2015, there were only 35 rental homes for every 100 households at the lowest income level. Since 2007, the number of households that spend more than half of their income on rent has grown roughly 25 percent.
Savannah’s phrase “everything but a home with a stable environment” struck me: not just a house—she is looking for a home, for stability, an environment where her baby can grow up, a place in which she can envision a future. That’s something that the couches of friends and constant shuffling do not provide.
It’s easy for me to hear the phrase “homeless” and think of bearded men asleep in subway cars. And it is obvious that being without a home is a deprivation of needed shelter and protection from the elements. But what I had not reflected on until recently was the way in which people are affected when they are not technically on the streets, and yet have no stable place to go.
In an era of family fragmentation, the young adults my husband and I interviewed sometimes told us stories of being kicked out of the house by stepparents, or, if not technically kicked out, of moving in with friends to escape drama at home. Mike, a barista who was living out of his van, told us that he had “never had a good mother figure” and his “horrible” stepmoms would not allow him to live at home as a young adult. Instead, he drove to Colorado to live with his aunt, but Mike found that she “wasn’t as nurturing or loving” as he had hoped. He then fell in love with another barista and moved in with her. “I kind of crashed at her place for little awhile before she kicked me out,” he explained. Next, he found a room to rent in a large communal house, but he was struggling to keep up with child support payments and eventually took to the road again in his van. “Just instability all over the place,” he said. Because of that instability, Mike said he felt he had no choice but to allow his ex-wife’s new husband to adopt their son. Of his son he said, “he needed regularity, and he wasn’t getting that coming over to my house.” It was a painful decision, made, in part, because Mike felt he had no proper home to help raise a child.
We met other young adults like Mike who drifted from couch to couch, and young adults who moved in together or got married and took in additional renters to help pay the bills—and sometimes life with these new renters caused tension in the marriage or relationship. We met a young family living in a grandparent’s unfinished garage, and a family living in a hotel room.
Meanwhile, a handful of abandoned homes—legacies of foreclosure and the occasional meth lab—sit vacant in our town. It’s something that puzzles the young adults we talked with—there are houses available, so why is there nothing available for them?
Few of these young adults we interviewed had the experience of ever being homeless in the sense of being on the streets. Instead, they were homeless in the same sense that Savannah is: forced to rely on the hospitality of friends and family, and moving from place to place whenever they wear out their welcome. But this kind of living situation is difficult, particularly for young families. They may have literal shelter, but a home environment is so much more. Thus, the affordable housing crisis has profound social, emotional, psychological, even spiritual, effects for people searching for places to live out their family lives.
I’ve been thinking about this because my own family recently found ourselves away from home for almost three weeks. During that time, my husband and I and our three young children went from a hotel in Washington D.C. to my in-laws’ house in Pennsylvania to a friend’s house in Ohio, and then finally to the home of an acquaintance from church. Financial insecurity did not incite these movements—we went to D.C. for work and a day of vacation, and then stayed with friends because our house was getting some major lead remediation work done—so I was surprised by how stressful the time was and how it seemed to affect our children. Not only sleep schedules, but other daily habits and routines changed, and our three-year-old, who loves order and relies on predictability, struggled. There were tantrums and tears that I knew in my gut were the result of the strangeness for him of not being in his home during those three weeks.
If my little one’s behavior changed so much in just three weeks of transitions, how much more might children be affected when their families have no place to call home, no “stable environment” like Savannah was searching for? I also felt myself struggling emotionally, wondering if my moods and exhaustion were depression or simply the result of my circumstances. Our trips were fun and meaningful, and our friends were lovely hosts full of refreshing hospitality, yet I still longed to be settled.
I describe my recent experience not to even remotely suggest that it is similar to the struggles facing the millions of Americans who are looking for affordable housing, but to wonder aloud at the way people can face such turmoil in their home environment (or lack thereof) and still function at work and school and in their relationships. Many have critiqued the modern age as an age of rootlessness in the metaphysical sense of the term. But I am also struck by how many among us, even here in America, are literally rootless, without a consistent place to call home or the comfort of a predictable environment. I wonder how the two kinds of drifting might be related—does lack of physical home feed a sense of spiritual dislocation? Is it more difficult to plan for the future or discern purpose and meaning when the immediate environment is choppy and changing?
The Millennials I know, who might be considered “severely cost-burdened” when it comes to rent, sometimes emphasize that a home is not measured by its size or grandeur. As I discussed at the recent Catholic Women’s Forum on poverty, expectations for housing are remarkably simple. One single mother told me that even if she won a million dollars she would just buy “just a little ranch, nothin’ like crazy.” Others dream of owning a trailer and parking it on a plot of land in the country. In light of this, recent experiments with tiny home villages for the homeless are an intriguing, if insufficient, response to the affordable housing crisis.
In its deepest sense, the housing crisis is less about houses and more about being able to create the stability—externally and internally—that comes from having some place to call home.
Amber Lapp is a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, an Affiliate Scholar at the Institute for American Values, and co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project.