Homelessness is a challenge for us regardless of where we live, whether in a bustling city or a peaceful village. Homelessness just looks different. In any case, it’s critical to find long-term shelter for those seized by the merciless grip of homelessness. Although, the idea is not only a lack of housing. In order to achieve a rewarding life, people must somehow develop a sense of place for the locations where they live. This paves the way towards transforming house into home.
But what exactly do we mean when we talk about sense of place. Generally speaking, a sense of place refers to the attitudes and feelings individuals and groups feel towards a place. In its simplest form, sense of place refers to a piece of space that has been made meaningful. That place may be where we work, recreate or indeed live—our home.
Yet, there are challenges. Homelessness is something readily visible in our cities. As soon as we extend our view into the rural areas, homelessness is far more difficult to identify.
Regardless, holding to the importance of sense of place, the idea is to not only re-house, but also re-place people as part housing services.
Homelessness in Canada is not something that’s a “here or there” phenomenon. It’s estimated that every year, more than 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness. According to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH), homelessness is defined as “the situation of an individual or family without stable, permanent, appropriate housing, or the immediate prospect, means and ability of acquiring it.”
In cities, it’s easier to identify homelessness. Iconic images of men or women asleep on public benches or over grates are sad reminders of the harsh challenges of the lack of housing people have been forced to face. A form of homelessness often witnessed in rural areas, known as hidden homelessness, is a little easier to overlook.
Taking a Closer Look at Hidden Homelessness
Homelessness in rural parts of the country is readily disguised behind the cherished elements of many small towns. This type of homelessness is often referred to as hidden homelessness. In these circumstances, people may be in interim housing, temporary housing, say in a hostel or rooming house, living with others such as a friend or relative, or in institutional care, for instance in a health institution or group home. All of these qualify as a form of homelessness.
In 2014, around 2.3 million people said, at some point in their lives, they’ve suffered from hidden homelessness. For the majority, it was something they experienced for at least a month to a little less than a year. Just under 20% experienced it for a year or more.
There are some who are more likely to experience hidden homelessness. According to Statistics Canada, this might include those who’ve suffered from childhood maltreatment, if one has a disability, or those who have a poor sense of belonging to their community.
As an example, in places around Placentia Bay, hidden homelessness is the primary form of homelessness encountered. I’m a member of the Community Connections Housing Coalition in Placentia. We focus on challenges to housing experienced by people living in an area encompassing much of the southwest Avalon and Whitbourne. Our Housing Support Worker is always busy with several ongoing cases. As soon as one is completed, there are others waiting. And the situation here is mirrored, I’m sure, in other parts of the world.
The goal is to find houses for people facing housing challenges. We all know the most important stage is ensuring people have some sort of shelter. These are the nuts and bolts of the issue. Still, there’s more.
Equally important is to not only ensure they have a roof over their head, but they’re also on a path where they can develop a sense of place. The key is to not only be re-housed, but re-placed.
Place of My Own
Most of us know a house is not the same as a home. The former is defined by bricks and mortar, flooring, wiring, heating, water and such. But a home is imbued with a sense of place—tried, true and close to the heart. So, the idea is to develop a sense of place tied to our home.
Locations may not always evoke positive feelings. Certainly, a sense of place may work to exclude others. For instance, in a home or place of work, one person may regard some quality as a binding force, an element of their sense of place. Although, for another, they consider that element to be a force of opposition. However, my focus here is more on sentiments an individual or group feels will positively tie them to place.
So, we’re after understanding a home as possessing a sense of place. A sense of place is not something one can order from a store and then simply await its arrival. Fortunately, it would appear that some of the things we need to help create a sense of place are really quite sensible and straightforward.
Creating a Sense of Place
In order to forge a sense of place, one of the first characteristics for which we can search is a feeling of confidence. Many people who rent are always wary of their rental fees rising or in some cases, of eviction. It would be a comfort if individuals could be confident this would not occur. Given that comfort, they would be able to explore the deeper and finer refinements of their homes in order to develop a sense of place.
Another element contributing to our sense of place would be the ready access to nutritious and enjoyable food. Being forced to wonder where one is going to find something to eat is an all consuming concern. Such a challenge will provide an incessant drag on any positive feelings individuals may be developing regarding their homes.
Another stepping stone towards a sense of place requires an individual be able to harness and cultivate a positive mental health and well-being. So often, we may be able to obtain shelter, ideal in every way. Yet, again a person can be brought down by a nagging poor sense of self, one ebbing on depression. All of these components work together, a vicious circle of despondency, perhaps driving people further into depression. Again, if we become all consumed by our poor mental health, there is little chance to explore meanings that can invigorate and bring to life to a sense of place.
Part of what can provide a lifeline in these situations is a social network. Oftentimes, simply chatting about the challenges we are facing is sufficient to place them at bay. Sometimes, this is long enough for us to devise methods by which we can extricate ourselves from the tricky situation in which we’ve found ourselves. Again this alleviates the challenges we are facing. In so doing, it permits time to delve into the ideas and sentiments tying us to our homes.
Another basic necessity that would be seemingly miles from a sense of place would be making sure something like sanitation is in good order. Sanitation? Well, we all know how we’d feel if our toilet were not working or our shower or bathtub cannot be used. We’d be miserable. It’d be a challenge for anything useful to blossom regarding the values, meanings and beliefs infusing a place. Frankly, you and I both know, we likely wouldn’t care.
Finally, I think nature has a role to play in helping to bring to the fore sentiments that can ripen into a sense of place. And when I use the term nature, it can mean anything from a secluded view of the sea, our only companions the gulls wheeling in the sky to our favourite potted plant on the window ledge in the kitchen.
So, we’re seeking an enriching relationship with the living creatures—plant, animal, or fungus—with whom we share this planet. This can help to forge the favourable bonds we cultivate with our homes or even areas near our homes. In so doing, a sense of place enters its early stages of creation.
When we engender a sense of place tied to our house—the roof over our heads—it has established a meaning for us. We’ve noticed it and thus, we now care and are attentive to how it alters and changes over time. We care what happens to the future well-being of this place, our home. It is now incorporated into how we define ourselves.
A sense of place is not something that is ready made upon entry to a house. It is something that must develop with time. Although, as noted above, there are certain attributes that can aid in the creation of a sense of place.
Thus, working towards finding houses for those who are homeless is only one stage in establishing a home. At heart is the critical need to pave the way towards establishing a sense of place. This will work to permit people to find a degree of comfort and contentment in the places where they live, places that will become, in time, their home.
Ali, Nadia 2018 “Understanding Hidden Homelessness” Homeless Hub https://www.homelesshub.ca/blog/understanding-hidden-homelessness
Gaetz, S.; Barr, C.; Friesen, A.; Harris, B.; Hill, C.; Kovacs-Burns, K.; Pauly, B.; Pearce, B.; Turner, A.; Marsolais, A. (2012) Canadian Definition
of Homelessness. Toronto: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press. https://www.homelesshub.ca/sites/default/files/COHhomelessdefinition.pdf?_ga=2.102972548.565505382.1535315646-1247520704.1534870909
Habitat for Humanity 2018 “Hidden Homelessness across Canada” https://habitathm.ca/hidden-homelessness-across-canada/
Relph, Ted 2022 “Placeness, Place, Placelessness” https://www.placeness.com/changing-senses-of-place/
Rodrigue, Samantha 2016 “Hidden Homelessness in Canada” Statistics Canada https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/en/pub/75-006-x/2016001/article/14678-eng.pdf?st=OeL4-FVE