Psychology Sociology

Reflections on Homelessness


In my previous post, I conducted a survey inquiring into which social issues people are most passionate about. The result so far is that homeless is a major concern. Here I want to reflect on the complex reality of homelessness as it relates to social health. Since my own research does not look at homelessness in the conventional sense – as dwelling on the street – I will expand the concept by demonstrating how psychological homelessness is a major problem.

Beyond a physical space, “home is where the heart is,” as the idiom goes. Home is where one is surrounded by loved ones, a place of mutual care, and  a private refuge amidst a chaotic public world. Traditionally, home is a place where families gather to eat, where celebrations are held, and where children are nurtured.

Now, homes and families come in a multitude of forms. One may even refer to their college housemates as their “home away from home.” At its root, home is an affective social unit bonded together by a degree of solidarity and mutual reciprocity. In other words, being surrounded by the bonds of mutual trust and care.

Home is just as much a mind-set as it is a place. Feeling like one is at home means feeling the sense of warmth gained through specific interpersonal connections. Home is where the heart is, but also where the heart goes. A cold space can be infused by the warmth and spirit of home through the presence of family. As sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies describes, man is “his best and happiest when he is surrounded by his family and his own circle.”

Healthy homes give individuals psychological resilience – the intersection of social health and mental health. Healthy homes facilitate secure attachments, empowering individuals to explore the world with a sense of social support. Healthy homes propel individuals up Maslow’s pyramid, giving them the resources to fulfill their potential.

People may have a safe and stable place of residence, but still lack the sense of having a “home.” This is the state I referred to as being “psychologically homeless.” Beyond the homeless veterans that can be found on the street, I’ve spoken with several individuals who struggled with a sense of fully “coming home” after their deployment.

Although many Veterans have loving families to return to, the transition to civilian life can be characterized as a liminal space where losing one’s “military family” causes difficulty when trying to reintegrate into one’s “civilian family.” One Canadian Veteran I spoke with stated:

“…despite the fact that I had a close family, I did not have my brothers in arms, the guys I served with, the guys who knew me, and we all knew each other so well.…not having that balance of people I could lean on here, things got worse; my drug-use escalated.”

Several Veterans I spoke with said that the military was a form of family, making it difficult to leave. After getting injured and having to take a medical leave, one Veteran said he suffered a great deal feeling “cut off from the family.” Another individual developed a great deal of resentment toward the military due to various forms of institutional betrayal and had the opposite experience due to a highly supportive civilian family. He stated:

“I stand by this statement to my dying day, that if it wasn’t for family, I don’t know where I’d be. I’d probably be in a deep dark hole, probably drugs or alcohol, I don’t know…”

Despite having supportive social networks outside the military, rebuilding a sense of being “home” after a deployment is often difficult because of the relative gap in communal solidarity experienced during the transition to civilian life. As stated in my post defending American Sniper, where I quoted Sebastian Junger’s statement in War:

They miss being in a world where human relations are entirely governed by whether you can trust the other person with your life. It’s such a pure, clean standard that men can completely remake themselves in war.

Another Canadian Veteran I spoke with referred to this as an altruistic form of communal balance:

Once we are done our tour, once we leave, we are thrown back into our Canadian society where we are back to dog-eat-dog competition, individualism and materialism, and even if suffering from PTSD or difficulty with adjusting to life back in Canada, we would rather redeploy on a dime and get back to that balance that being in combat brings, that leveler of us all.

This is why it in important that researchers continue the focus on both Veterans and their families. The Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research (CIMVHR) is doing great work in this regard with their new Journal of Military, Veterans, and Family Health (JMVHF).

Home is a state of mind facilitated through familial ties characterized by strong bonds of trust and care. The social health of families and familial units needs to be maintained to protect the mental health of individuals who are vulnerable to psychological homelessness, particularity during major life transitions. As the title of this blog states, “finding home in a fluid world” is a central theme I focus on. Finding a home requires more than searching for a house to live in. It requires finding an interpersonal home, a place where one can both give and receive the heartfelt affection that characterizes “home.”

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  1. Kind of an off the wall thought here but, it seems to me like the people you mention above are, when they speak of family, actually talking about certainty.

    Have you found any links between ambiguity tolerance and successful reintegration?

  2. As a Mother of a Marine who is due to come out of the military after serving 30 years I take your words to heart. I am grateful my son has family support, but realise how vital ex-veteran support is for those feeling alienated following a lifetime’s service among bothers in arms. Good Work Steve.

  3. Wise and helpful Steve. I agree that many of us and especially vets need better support. Home is created with social connections. Some of us, myself included, still aren’t very good at it.
    blessings, Brad

  4. Home is more than a physical address, it’s a place you feel comfort being you in, and, until you can find that internally, you can NOT feel at home, anywhere, from the psychological perspective, that is…

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