Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The opposite of homed

As I remarked last fall at our homelessness roundtable (quoting authorities better versed in it all than I), to call someone "homeless" is distinctive and telling. To be homeless is to be defined by a lack, the lack of a home. In prior times the same person might have been called a bum, a drifter, a tramp, a vagabond. (Carl Sandburg was once, by his own account, a hobo.) Perhaps these terms became disreputable on their own terms, and so all that was left was a negative identity. We don't know what to call them, but we know what they are not, what crucial thing they do not have: a home. No fixed address.

If you have no address, where do get your mail? Will your letter to the editor be published? (The one time I had a letter published in the Washington Post, they called me at home to verify that I was for real.) If you live out of a van, where can you send your child to school? Where can you register to vote? (If you are interested.) Without firm grounding, what position of authority can you claim?

Having your own household is the beginning of autonomy--this was Aristotle's belief, and it became worked out in English common law. The private sphere, the enjoyment of the privacy of your own home, was a positive asset: the home as refuge from the regulated public sphere, from the authority of the sovereign. It is one half of Shakespeare's "local habitation and a name."

Home is a powerful metaphor. Bring your point home. You're home free. And of course, your home page.

The Homeless Guy has a home page. I understand he makes good use of the Nashville Public Library. Is he unusual? He is unusually articulate, but he may not be that unusual. He's a man without a home, for particular reasons, and he would be happer if he had one (an apartment would do).

In the same way that no one knows you're a dog, on the internet no one has to know you are homeless. You can look for work. You can offer to do work. There is much potential here it seems.

So I asked in the Chapel Hill Public Library about their policy on offering internet services to persons with no fixed address. The woman at the reference desk was not exactly sure. She found out that in order to register to use the internet--and you do have to give information about yourself--you do not have to give an address, not even the address of the homeless shelter. But if you want to check out a book, ah, that is a different question.

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