Publicly Funded Communal Housing

Jim Clark

A major concern for the at-risk community and homelessness-relief advocates is affordable housing. Access to shelter is extremely important for survival, especially in Michigan winters, and our county resources do a good job with the resources they have. The actual shelter itself may only help part of the homeless population though. For incidental or temporary homelessness, jump-starting a housing arrangement with help for a security deposit may be all someone needs. Or they may need extended or expanded support, which is also something advocates can supply. For others, however, there is a missing element. 

Having experienced homelessness myself, I became a resident at the Delonis Center, a homeless shelter in Ann Arbor; I spent time getting to know the others that stayed there. I learned that, for many, the traditional “home” consisting of spouses, children, parents, siblings and others, didn’t exist or was woefully inadequate. I can say that not having that network of intimacy produced strong feelings of despair and hopelessness. Being alone can be painful and even unhealthy. In the past,a person’s extended family was their primary source of identity, love and support. Although we have learned that “family of origin” issues may keep blood family bonds from evolving, the need to feel important and included persists. Given that even a nuclear family (two parents and their children) may be unavailable to some, housing alone isn’t enough to meet the full spectrum of their emotional needs. The missing piece is that some people have no family to meet the need for family, thus homelessness has to be seen as a group problem. 

In psychology, there is a theory of human behavior known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. A pyramid depicts the different needs humans have and each is given a priority. Deficiency needs, air, food, water, and heat are first priority, followed by the need for shelter from the elements and safety from immediate danger. The third tier is the need for love and belonging. These are followed by the growth needs which include the need for esteem, challenge, and reaching one’s full potential. The need for love, intimacy, and belonging is a deficiency need, meaning if it is not met, the sufferer will deteriorate emotionally and mentally to a life-threatening degree. Humans need to love and feel loved. We need to know that someone will miss us when we leave and are happy to see us when we return. We need to have intimacy, someone to share secrets with, someone to know us on a deep personal level. And we need to feel like we belong somewhere, that we know who we are and where we come from. This is what we experience in that healthy family or community space we describe as “home.” “Housed” means having a warm, dry, safe place to sleep and store belongings, which is good. However, if no one knows or cares that you are alone in a room or apartment, that place is not home. Being protected, loved, and needed, as well as housed, warm, and fed are what add up to being home. In other words, people need to “feel” family in order to BE home.

Life at the shelter was an indoctrination to a new culture. As such I relied heavily on the compassion of others, in my situation and elsewise, to help me learn the written rules and the unwritten social norms. The people that helped me became like family. Even now that I am housed, I return to the shelter and warming centers to be with my new friends. It was the setting that made this available to me. If it were not for the shelter and those gathering places, I would have been on my own. On the streets or tied up in institutional red tape, being alone is a bitter experience. The people in my lifeboat were meeting the need for family and still do. When I left Delonis, I felt like I was losing my home again. Housing people in groups provides the vital shelter needed to support life, as well as the humanity that comes from being in a familial setting. While we are building more dwellings and reallocating units with tax money, let’s consider how we are housing people as well.