“What are you and your son doing for the holidays?” This question, innocently asked, is an emotional minefield for me and families like mine across the country coping with homelessness. How do the millions of people facing housing insecurity emotionally navigate the holiday season when the very concept of ‘home’ is so quintessential to how we feel about the holidays themselves? Most people don’t realize how many millions of Americans who find themselves without a safe and affordable place to live struggle with the season of “home and hearth.”
A recent report by the Council of Economic Advisers estimates more than half a million people are homeless in America with nearly half of those (200,000) on the streets. However, in order to fully understand the true scope of the number of people struggling to find and keep a home one also needs to add to these numbers people paying more than the recommended 30% of their income to housing costs, the estimated 4.7 million people ‘couch-homeless’ or tentatively living with friends or family, and people with little or no savings who are literally one job layoff away from homelessness. An estimated 7.8 million extremely low-income renters spent at least 50% of their income on rent and utilities.
For example, a study measuring overcrowding, unaffordability, poor physical conditions, and recent experience of eviction or a forced move shows the majority of renters in 25 U.S. metropolitan areas experience some form of housing insecurity.
Finding special moments
For these Americans, the already profound, daily sense of personal failure and shame so intrinsically bound to lacking a safe personal space of your own is infinitely compounded by our archetypal image of home and hearth during the holiday season. Add into that mix a young child, poverty, and the universal parental desire to make your child happy and you can easily recognize how housing challenges make the holidays a particularly difficult time. As a father, the greatest pain of our homelessness during the holidays is the inability to do the little things that make holidays special like carving the holiday turkey at the dining room table or proudly watch him open his presents under the Christmas tree.
Whether it’s the lack of money to buy presents for friends and family because joblessness or high rent or the limited space itself to decorate or cook, housing challenges make the holidays a particularly stressful time. For instance, my son and I ate Thanksgiving dinner out at a restaurant because the cramped shelter room where we live has no place to cook. However, we did so knowing we were fortunate because many families ate their turkey and stuffing with strangers in church soup kitchens or not at all.
Families struggle to find happy times
But beyond spatial concerns, spending the holidays in an unwelcome or unsafe living space just intensifies the already present feelings of guilt and despair felt by those of us without a secure home of our own. There’s not only not enough physical space to put a Christmas tree or holiday decorations, but also a sense that the very act of decorating our space would be manifesting a level of comfortable acceptance of our unpleasant housing situation. There is also a real fear that decorating our space would trigger my depression by sadly reminding me of happier holidays, awash in the sounds of laughter and smells of delicious foods, in a home of my own before my wife passed away from cancer.
Even for ‘couch homeless’ people who may be living with relatives or friends, the holidays can make you feel like an unwelcome interloper, trespassing on the intimate familial space of others. Therefore, many may choose instead to avoid these awkward feelings of guilt by isolating themselves.
All these feelings of shame and guilt make the holiday season is an especially difficult time for families like mine experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity. It’s a time of year when, all around us, Americans are inundated with countless memories and symbols at the heart of our fundamental sense of home, safety, and family. Whether it’s a dining room table covered with carefully prepared holiday foods while the kitchen is a-buzz activity, a bedazzled Christmas tree with lovingly wrapped gifts underneath in a warm living room, or watching movies while drinking hot chocolate with windows adorned with festive lights, home is rooted to every family’s ideal of the holidays. For us, this festive season is a bittersweet combination of fond family memories, a stark reminder of a disappointing present, and a faint hope for a better tomorrow.
About the Series: The Welcome Home series is a space for discussion, debate, and information about the people, policies, and narratives that influence how we think and talk about housing. It is part of our year-long Housing Narrative Project.
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