Needed: Normalized Homelessness

14Nov09

We started pretty simply.  Regardless of your religious beliefs, you likely concur that we were living outdoors, without a pot to boil beans in.  What we have now is an advance over that in some much appreciated ways, but it is also a departure from that in some unfortunate ways.

In our early days, we were living pretty much from one tree or cave or water hole to the next.  This had advantages that we still appreciate.  For instance, it made it easier for us to be where the cool stuff was happening, without having to worry about loading up a whole vanload of kids and dogs and their appurtenant accessories.

Somehow, however, we have arrived at a place where it has become fashionable to use our resources as unproductively as possible.  Like some bird that grows absurd tailfeathers to attract mates, we reached a stage where we needed to have houses that we could then fill with assorted merchandise from around the world and never leave, except that we usually did.  Leave, that is.  So while we might have enough stuff to entertain two dozen starving Africans in the basement for a week without hardly even noticing they are there, we actually only use it for ourselves, and only once in a while at that.

A different model, closer to the nomadic spirit and the simple life, and made available to anyone who’s interested in having it, would require little more than a plastic card and an overnight bag.  My overnight bag contains fresh underwear and tomorrow’s clothes, picked up from an indoor storage unit located near my job.  Tonight, I’d like to party with some friends, so I’m going to take mass transit out to their vicinity.  I’m going to drive or walk along until I see an available housing unit.  I’m going to stick my keycard in the door.  My account is charged and the place is mine until tomorrow.  It’s already fully stocked by an organization that’s a more efficient shopper than I am.  What I take goes on my tab.

I’ll pay for this with the money I save on not having to rent and/or maintain a place that’s bigger than I need, with various appliances (e.g., vacuum cleaner, ice cream maker, charcoal grill) that most people use only occasionally.  If I have little or no income, my card might work only in a certain category of minimal housing units.  Nonetheless, there will tend to be places where my card will work, and I’ll be able to focus on jobhunting or taking classes or whatever constitutes my next step.

This model permits gradations upwards and downwards, according to individual need and desire.  I may not need a place with a swimming pool and an expansive lawn every day, so why should I pay to have it every day? If I’m going to be in a rut for the next five days (e.g., Monday through Friday), I’ll rent the place for the five days and ask them to haul over the multiday locker from my storage unit on Monday morning. If I want to be experimental, I’ll rent a sleeping space in a gazebo or a treehouse or a boat.  On the other extreme, if I just need a place to crash, I’ll rent a glorified box.  If your child is sick, you rent a space near your job; if you have to be at an appointment early in the morning, you rent a space near there.

These accommodations can be provided by Marriott/FedEx or a landlord or the government or whoever.  The important thing is that the concept of a house as a building that keeps people away from each other is replaced by the concept of a living space as a temporary respite from daily life in the world.  Less is invested in making it huge and fixed, and more is invested in making it adaptable and suited for evolving individual and societal needs.

In this model, being homeless ceases to mean being a loser who cannot afford those exotic tailfeathers.  It means, instead, having to make a phone call to get a card.

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