PRINT May 1992


WHEN IS A HOUSE NOT A HOME? Xaviera Hollander had one answer, of course. But hundreds of thousands of other people living in the great cities of the world have another: when it is housing that they do not want, when it is housing over which they have no control, when it is housing in which they have neither privacy nor security, when it is housing that is in no sense (let alone legally) theirs. It is not only the homeless, those living on the streets or in emergency shelters, who are “home-less” today. In New York City alone, 25,000 individuals are living in emergency or transitional lodgings provided by the city; experts estimate that over twice that number are living on the streets or in doorways. These are the people publicly acknowledged to be homeless. But there are, in addition, 108,000 households living doubled up, 70,000 households evicted annually, 338,000 households living in units with multiple deficiencies, 433,000 households paying more than 50 percent of their incomes for shelter and thus only precariously hanging on, and 469,000 households residing in areas of abandonment, where neighborhood conditions are such that no one feels “at home” there during the daylight hours, certainly not after dark.

Words take on new shadings without our knowing it. All “houses” are not “homes”; those in what is euphemistically called “emergency housing” or “transitional housing” hardly would call themselves at home there. And some without houses have nevertheless fashioned homes for themselves. Turn, for example, to page 112 in the October 1991 issue of Artforum, and look carefully at the photograph of the home someone has made in a subway tunnel under the streets of New York; or think of the boats, trains, even cars that, against all odds, have been adapted as livable spaces. The fortitude and imagination of some people are astounding.

This distinction between a “home” and a “house” is not just wordplay. It would have made no sense before the advent of capitalism, which brought with it the modern concept of home (and with it the modern concept of alienation). In feudal times, most lived on the land they worked, and their houses/homes were directly connected with their employment. If one had no work, one was likely to have neither house nor home. One spoke not of the homeless but of the workless in the middle ages, though the workless also had no shelter. With the rise of capitalism, workplace became disconnected from residence, and home got, for the first time, its modern meaning.

If the transition from feudalism to capitalism was one great watershed in the history of homelessness, the 1970s in the U.S. witnessed a second: the beginning of the transition to what might be called “advanced homelessness,” homelessness in an advanced technological society in which all the conditions for the subjugation of homelessness have been reached, but in which, for ideological and political reasons, it nevertheless persists. For today, homelessness is no longer simply the inevitable product of a system that only provides housing for those who can pay for it. That was true before. But it was also, before now, true that the incidence of homelessness fluctuated: housing prices went up and down, people got and lost jobs, were paid more or less, were provided for (more or less) by their government when there was a temporary economic downturn. This is no longer true of advanced homelessness, of those who are homeless today.

The multiple layers of meaning of home are often apparent: “I find it difficult to say ‘I am Homeless.’ The word ‘home’ means much more to me than ‘houseless!’ Often I find myself saying, 'I am not Homeless, but Houseless.’

“Home is with me always. Home is the heart. Home is memories—love, caring, sharing. Home is my upbringing, it is my grandmother, mother, father. Home is vast outstretched years of good and bad times. It is moments in time, a vast history of my being. I am not Homeless, no, I am Houseless.

“Houseless—a loss of place to live, an apartment, a house, a space of my own. It speaks to me of rent, walls, and rooms. A place to hang my hat. A place, a thing. A roof over one’s head, a loan, a thing to use, can be replaced with money. Houseless, yes, we all need houses. But home we’ll have to make ourselves.”1 Or consider the words of the “homeless” Vietnam veteran quoted as saying, “I’m offended when people talk of me as homeless. I have a home: America. I fought for this country, and I belong here now. I’m home.”2 The resistance to alienation must, for the most desperately off, be separated even from the necessity for shelter.

Another trick with words. Many now talk of “homeless housing” and of what to do for the homeless: they ask how much homeless housing is being built, how much is needed, who should build it and manage it, how it should look, where it should be put. No one notices that “homeless housing” is an oxymoron; once a person has a house, you would think, he or she would no longer be homeless. One would perhaps better speak of “posthomeless housing,” housing for those once without a home. Yet “homeless housing” remains at the center of much public discourse. There is, again, a subtle shift in meaning: the state of being “homeless” is no longer understood as a situation—being without a home (or a house)—but as the characteristic of a person, one who is different, outside, alien, who remains a “homeless person” even after being provided with “housing for the homeless.” Speaking of “homeless housing” betrays another attitude, another policy, as well. “Homeless housing” is different from normal housing; it is not just posthomeless housing, housing for those who were once on the streets, but something else—home-less housing in the literal sense of the words.

“Home-less housing,” housing that does not provide homes for its occupants, is real, not a trick of phrasing but one of the great scandals of our time. In the photographs illustrating this essay, Camilo Vergara shows us its terrible range: the worst public housing, abandoned buildings, institutional shelters, vandalized single-family houses. Those in them do not feel “at home”—and with reason. Not some subjective characteristic, but the objective realities with which they are surrounded, prevent them from being at home in environments in which they are forced to live to obtain the barest shelter from the elements, in environments that they have no ability to shape or even influence. If we wanted our technical vocabulary to correspond to real human meanings, we would not talk of emergency housing, or of transitional residences, or of permanent housing for the homeless, as we do in program description after program description, law after law. Instead, we would talk about emergency, transitional, and permanent shelters. And we would recognize that all those living in them still need homes, no matter how good the shelters might be.

How does a home differ from a shelter? Not in the ways our ideologists of the status quo, most of our media, our advertisers, and our speech-makers would have us believe. First of all, ownership does not guarantee a home; rented apartments are homes to millionaires as well as to middle-class citizens, and many a squatted apartment is more of a home than an unmanageable, unwanted, unsalable “owned” single-family house is for an elderly widow or widower. Nor does it matter who owns the property; some public housing apartments are beautiful homes, while some privately owned rentals are at best transitional shelters for those who live there.

A home must be in a neighborhood, a place with human services and support facilities for that part of life which is dependent on others. One can have a home without a neighborhood, but only with great difficulty; fortified castles, like prisons, keep people in as well as out. Words again betray us: neighborhoods are not in the first place geographic designations on a map, but places where neighbors live. Yet today—look again at Vergara’s photographs—we have nonneighbor neighborhoods, sections of the city where empty lots and alienating institutions surround houses, where going on the street means looking for trouble not looking for friendship, support, neighborliness. No home will long survive in such a nonneighborhood.

What would it take to make posthomeless housing into homes? Odd that we should even have to ask the question, for there are excellent examples of posthomeless housing about us. Look at Ellen Baxter’s Washington Heights project, where formerly homeless people have a say in their own environment, where their neighbors accept them, where their building is integrated into the neighborhood. Look at most public housing. The standard stereotype of the high-rise slab is not an attribute of public ownership or management, but of the restrictions imposed by a hostile Congress on an ideologically threatening program. Yet First Houses on the Lower East Side, Harlem River Houses in Harlem, Dyckman Houses in northern Manhattan are home (and have been home for many years) to thousands of people delighted to be there.

Nor is it unusual that the provision of services is required to make posthomeless housing into homes. Everybody needs services. Consider what some prosperous urbanites take for granted: somebody to make and deliver take-out food; someone to receive packages at your front door; someone to protect you from unwanted visitors; some place to exercise and stay fit; heat in the winter, air conditioning in the summer. Such services are provided because they are profitable, because there is effective monetary demand. The services the very poor, including the previously homeless, need are traditionally not profitable, and thus are provided not by the private market but by the public sector. Education, health care, transportation, security from crime and from fire are acknowledged public functions, but as public functions are more important for the poor than for the rich, who can privatize them. Is the obligation of an architect who designs low-income housing to call for neighborhood security, health facilities, and spaces of cultural communication—playgrounds, mailrooms, community rooms, and the like—and to show how these may be provided, really any different from the obligations of an architect who designs a security system for a high-rise luxury building, or its health spa and community entertainment rooms?

Architecture has an important mission in the low-income housing field—and it is not only the provision of the most adequate shelter at the least cost. Architecture not only provides but represents, is the outward image of the resident. What is represented is not, of course, entirely under the architect’s control: the client’s level of wealth, for instance. But architecture can represent other things than wealth or poverty; indeed, it must, if it is to be either art or socially useful. The architect has to care about the user, know the user, even, oddly enough perhaps, consult with the user. In a world where the payers, and not the users, usually determine the design, the priority must be reversed, precisely for those who can pay the least.

Look at the results when the architects did not pay attention. How can an architect have had a part in designing the monstrosities Vergara’s pictures on page 90 are witness to? At best these buildings were planned by a cost estimator or an engineer, at worst by a willing saboteur of all the architectural profession should stand for. One could speak, with shame, of contextual architecture in abandoned nonneighborhoods, of preabandoned housing, of transitional buildings, even of disposable buildings. If stereotypical high-rise slabs were built for public housing because Congressional funding restrictions allowed nothing else, architects should have risen up as a body to protest. To talk about Le Corbusier in this context is sheer hypocrisy; as if you could take a project from Marseilles, transplant it to the middle of the Bronx, eliminate all amenities, restrict its occupancy to the worst off, isolate it from its neighborhood, and expect it to provide homes—for anyone.

In this connection public art is important not as a mode of artistic self-expression, but as a form of communication for the resident, the citizen—a part of a collective urban expression of which artists, architects, and planners are the interpreters. Reading the South Bronx, central Harlem, or parts of Brooklyn today, the communication is loud and clear: these are intended to be warehouse areas for the unwanted. That those living there are people, that those in shelters or on the streets are not a different breed, is not conveyed in the appearance of these nonneighborhoods. The homeless are better at creating homes for themselves than are many who pretend to do so, or the larger number who do not care. Artists, architects, planners, designers could—and should—help change that.

Peter Marcuse is a professor of urban planning at Columbia University. New York. He has written extensively on homeless and policy-planning issues.



1. Sondra Davis, a homeless woman in New York City, in “Houseless, Not Homeless,” Street News, April 1990, p. 15.

2. Ibid.