The street behind my gym has become a sort of tent city. Homeless people have turned the sidewalks on both sides into their own encampments. Shelters have been fashioned from blue tarp, piles of bedding are wedged between plastic water bottles, bags of potato chips, and the detritus that others have discarded — items that were fished out of trash cans and dumpsters. This all changed yesterday.
When I left the gym, four trash trucks idled on the street and men in city uniforms were using shovels, rakes, and their gloved hands to throw everything into the back of the trucks. Today the sidewalks were bare, as if no one had been living there for the past 6 months.
I thought about home, and about the irony of calling people “homeless” when, to them, those rigged up tarps and piles of stained bedding, the rickety wooden chairs and plastic crates were what they considered home. The longing for home is primal; it lives deep inside every sentient being. We want a place that’s ours, that feels familiar and — if we’re lucky — safe. The instinct is so strong that we will become territorial over a section of sidewalk, half a room, a cell.
It’s achingly common for people with dementia to keep repeating, “I want to go home,” even if they are standing in a home they’ve lived in for decades. In the support group I run for family members of those with Alzheimer’s and dementia, I frequently tell people that home is not just a physical place — it’s a concept, a feeling. Someone with dementia feels unmoored, adrift. Everything that was once familiar looks increasingly strange. What they are longing for is the sense of belonging they once had, which has now been taken from them. What they’re asking for is more emotional than physical.
I don’t know where the people were whose belongings were being tossed into city trash trucks. I saw only one man — shirtless, in dirty jeans, grabbing a folding chair from the city worker who was about to toss it out. I imagined him walking the streets with that one chair, looking for a spot that, for a moment, might feel like home to him. The street as it used to be, lined with tents and bedding and trash, was definitely an alarming sight. I always tried to avoid parking there. But the sight of it being scraped up and thrown out made me sad. No one ever said when they were growing up, “I want to live on the streets.” Things happened to those people that resulted in them having no roof, no walls, no home as we typically define it. To be honest, I didn’t feel any particular sadness when the encampment was there — it was inconvenient and a bit scary. The feeling rose up in me when I heard the scraping of shovels and the thump of belongings landing in the trash trucks. Its strange the moments that make you remember your humanity.
In my new novel The Earth Breaks in Colors the characters find themselves scattered and stranded in various sections of Los Angeles after an earthquake strikes. They have to pick their way across the damaged city to come home to each other, as well as to their physical homes. They are pulled by a longing for those homes, but also by a longing for the love that anchors their lives, even though that love has been messy and ragged with pain. Their return to each other is the real homecoming. They come back different — wiser, softer, humbled by the journey they’ve had to take. They come back with a deeper understanding of what it is to return home.
Mother Teresa said: “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.”
We are a rich country with a lot of poverty in our midst. I don’t have any answers, but it might be that thinking more deeply about home and homelessness, about poverty of the spirit, not just poverty of belongings, could inspire us to come up with answers. Somehow sending trash trucks and men with shovels doesn’t seem like a solution Mother Teresa would endorse.