Personal Recollections of Homelessness — A Wound That Never Fully Heals

By Prof. S.M. Miller

Some years ago, while visiting Dublin, Ireland, I discovered that I had been homeless as a child in Brooklyn. I was consulting with Focus Point, a newly established Irish organization that deals with housing problems. In the course of questioning the staff in order to clarify its goals and activities, I used the term “homeless.” The staff pointedly corrected me: they did not use that word. Their phrase was people with “no permanent abode. ” That definition extended beyond people in temporary shelters or “living rough” on the street. Included were those who lived doubled-up with others and those who had to shift from one indoor sleeping place to another. Suddenly, I realized that by this definition I too had been “homeless,” with “no permanent abode.”

I was overwhelmed, close to tears, at this naming of that terrible experience when I was ten. Immediately, I saw that time in an even more terrifying light than I had ever permitted myself to acknowledge.

DepressionDuring the Depression of the 1930s we were living in Philadelphia where I was born. Family economic conditions worsened to the point that our electricity was turned off and we lived in the dark. My parents decided finally to seek help with my mother’s sisters in Brooklyn, aunts whom I scarcely knew. One sister took my mother, father, and me to live with her husband and three sons in a crowded apartment. My two sisters, considerably older than I, lived with other aunts. After several months of this strained, divided existence, my parents were thrown out summarily by my irascible uncle who found our presence (and my withdrawn shyness and school success) disturbing. Another aunt took us in for a while during the hot summer and my parents and I shared a bed in a tiny room with an exceedingly small window opening on a shaft. Another relative whom I did not know at all, appalled I believe by the three of us sharing a bed, took me to stay with his family. This went on for some period until my parents found jobs that enabled us to rent our own small apartment and reunite the family.

My sisters and I never discussed this episode with each other and certainly not with our parents. When I did think about it in later years, I would focus on my pain and isolation. It was only after Dublin, many years later, that I could discuss that time with my surviving sister and realize how damaging that period was for her and must have been for my parents, especially for my mother, a proud, energetic and effective woman.

My Dublin-based recall was highlighted recently because of my role as a social scientist concerned about poverty and inequality. I learned of an article by Bruce G. Link and his colleagues at Columbia University’s School of Public Health that moved beyond the usual practice of counting as homeless only those who were living in shelters or on the street on a given day. Using what was, in effect, the definition of “no permanent abode,” they asked a national sample if they had ever been homeless. (The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is beginning to use this broader understanding of homelessness.) By using the broader definition and by asking about lifetime experience, this study differed from the usual counts of the numbers of homeless people. Through this method, the count of the homeless swelled from perhaps 400,000 who on a given night were living rough or in a temporary shelter to 26 million adults who at some time during their lives lacked a permanent abode.

Asking for lifetime experience makes a great deal of sense. A one-night reporting of the homeless is an undercount of what happened to people during the year or over a lifetime (just as unemployment rates tell only of what happened in a particular week rather than how many people and households experienced some sizable unemployment and loss of income during a year).
The lifetime rate is important because living with “no permanent abode” scars people. Gaining a reliable residence does not wipe out the troubles that lacking a reliable home produces. In my case, I have enormous difficulty in asking for a favor despite enjoying the privileged position of providing many favors to others. Yes, I learned from D. H. Lawrence’s The Man Who Died that just as there is a greed in taking without giving, there is a greed in giving without taking. Nonetheless, I recoil (as does my sister) at the idea of asking for a favor, even from those I have helped. When I do, it takes enormous willpower to overcome that sense of shame and fear of rebuff in having to ask for aid. I trace this reluctance and many other failings and disturbing feelings to that period of “no permanent abode.”

Homelessness is a deeper continuing experience than the passing loss of a bed to call your own. It is a wound that never fully heals.

Copyright Institute of Labor and Mental Health Nov/Dec 1999. Reprinted with the author’s permission from “No Permanent Abode,” Tikkun, Vol. 14, No. 6, Nov/Dec 1999, pg. 32. (861 words).

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