Writer Maya Angelou’s words could have been written about the “homeless” of Wellington during the recent parliamentary protests. They were offered free cooked meals, shelter in tents, and fresh clothing. For a few short weeks, they found a community and belonging.
The sense of purpose they re-discovered temporarily solved the housing crisis in Wellington—for them. Then it was back to the streets.
Those were turbulent weeks. There are lessons to learn from those who ache for the home they found during the protest: That home is more than shelter. It’s a sense of place.
Former Prime Minister Norm Kirk poetically said people crave “someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work, something to hope for.”
Nearly 50 years later, ministers of all political hues talk in sentences of word-shaped air and say nothing as poetic. “We have processes in place to ensure that our clients are housed and kept safe,” they might say. They talk about “housing”, not homes. “Infrastructure”, not the roads we drive to take our kids safely to school.
Professional parliamentary parties have become the political arm of the bureaucracy.
Norm Kirk elevated prosaic words by expressing our unspoken desires—a poetic politics connecting us with our purpose in life and our everyday experience.
Love, place, work, and hope connect to an ancient craving for “home” and make us human and civilised. Without a home, we are lost.
Animals make things that could be called houses but never homes. A colony of beavers builds a dam to create a still pond where they can construct a lodge to live in. Birds build nests. Chimpanzees make beds in trees—all temporary.
Humans build permanent homes.
The origin of the words “home” and “house” are different. “Home” comes from the Old English “hām”, related to the Dutch “heem” and German “heim.” It meant a permanent residence, as opposed to a shelter.
“House” comes from another old Germanic word, “Khusan”, and changed into “hus” in Old English. It stems from the verb “to hide”, which implies temporary (it also explains the use of the word “hide” to mean animal skin).
A “home” is always something more permanent.
With homes came the birth of cities, and with cities, modern civilisation.
Even the word “economics” has its roots in ancient concepts of the home. “Eco” comes from the Ancient Greek word “oikos”, which means an extended family unit, including the home, land, people, animals, property—and slaves (this was a long time ago). The oldest male’s job was to manage the family unit—it’s economy— smoothly.
Homes reflect our values. They tell us who we are through the ages. They are part of the record of what it means to be human.
Is the communal area in a home formal or relaxed? Is the kitchen the centre of the home or a separate space where servants prepare meals unwatched? In ancient times, a home with round walls tended to house semi-nomadic people. A square house, a more sedentary people. Nobody knows why, but it’s a pattern all over the world.
Other types of homes tell different modern stories. Studies show that people who live in mobile homes have worse sleep patterns. Apartments with no outdoor areas lead to higher levels of depression.
Our homes tell stories about the fabric of who we are today. Apparently, we’re a society that thinks it’s ok that families live in motel rooms for years.
A place in our imagination
Home may exist primarily in our imaginations.
I grew up in a small Cotswold village in the UK. We were the only outsiders. London was as foreign to my village friends as New Zealand. I never doubted I belonged.
Memories of your childhood home echo through your life like a dream, even if the years were unhappy. I can smell the fresh leaves and loamy soil of the blackberry bushes where we hid in games and the dusty taste of the air in the tight tunnels we built in the hay bales.
We experience our childhood homes physically. Emotions are remembered as smells, tastes, and textures.
This year I returned to the village. My old best friend and I went looking for our childhood camp in an abandoned pigsty. As kids, we had found an old carpet, stacked up books from our bedrooms and laid out an old tea set to make our camp look like home.
Forty years later, like oversized Alice in Wonderlands, we stick our big heads through the door of our re-discovered sty. Gasp! Everything is as we had left it 40 years ago. A plastic tea cup has fallen to the ground. Only the trees around the sty have grown around our memories.
For a moment, I fantasise about buying back my old house. I could return home.
But beware nostalgia. We come and go from many homes in our lives. We leave a house, a town, a country. Each time we leave something of ourselves behind while our homes follow us like shadows, just out of vision.
You can’t go back.
“If you must leave a place you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep,” writes author Beryl Markham, “leave it quickly. Never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it has passed.”
If you go back to an old home after the people are gone, you see what is not there anymore.
I looked at my friend. Still there with me. We walked away.
Many of Wellington’s homeless found belonging in the angry protests on Parliament’s grounds. For a moment, they found a home.
When we say “let’s go home”, we could mean a physical structure, a special place, or a group of people. We mean, go where you feel comfortable, where you are known, where you can be yourself.
For some, peacefully drifting off to sleep on a mattress in the wharenui of your mārae, the white noise of the uncles and aunties snoring says, “you are home.”
A mārae mattress doesn’t have to be the same one each night. It’s still home.
We denied this sense of home to as many as a million of us when we locked them out during Covid without a place in managed isolation.
One friend living overseas and away from his whānau told me he would never call New Zealand home again. The betrayal was too much.
He will find another place and new people.
A research study examined the fluid sense of “home” experienced by young Tokyo residents. Their apartments are small and crowded, so “home” extends to communal spaces where they perform home-like activities: laundries, places to eat, venues to hang out with friends or just rest. Attachment extends to all these places beyond the place where they sleep.
Throughout history, innovators have always found ways to make communities feel like home.
Roman cities had public bathhouses and aqueducts, bringing fresh water piped into public drinking fountains. Today we still have public swimming baths, but fewer of us go to church or join a sports club. Until COVID, we may not have even known our neighbours.
It may not matter where you sleep as long as the place you live feels like home.
Everyone needs to belong somewhere.
The politics of home
In 1950 Winston Churchill boomed in a speech worthy of a Southern preacher to his party faithful that their government would build more new homes. “You’ve demanded that the target we should put in our programme is 300,000 houses a year. I accept it.” He was applauded with a standing ovation.
Churchill put his best minister in charge. Harold Macmillan later stood in a building site surrounded by men laying bricks and mixing cement and said, “This then is our housing message. The quicker you build, the more you will be able to build, and the more you will be asked to build.”
What we wouldn’t give for that passion now!
New Zealand’s social housing waiting list has more than tripled to 26,500 since the 2017 election. Rents outpace wage growth. In seven years, they’ve risen by a third.
Politicians in New Zealand didn’t start to use the term “housing crisis” until 2013. They never quite decided if the housing crisis meant the shortage of social housing, the cost of rent, or the soaring price of buying a first home.
If you can’t name the problem, no wonder you can’t fix it.
Developers and “mum and dad” investors bought extra houses for tax-free capital gains. By 2013 the average house was earning more than the person living in it.
Since 1990, New Zealand’s houses have grown by more than $1.2 trillion. Economics commentator Bernard Hickey has pointed out that if income from housing had been taxed at the same rate as wages over that period, it would have generated nearly $500 billion in revenue.
That could have built many more houses and dampened the speculation that drove house values.
When large numbers are locked out of housing, there will eventually be political consequences. YouGov polling in eleven OECD countries has shown support for the first time amongst voters for a “tax switch” from income to wealth. Voters’ views are changing not from envy but fairness, moving more of the burden from your climb up the hill to when you reach the top of it.
When the income tax was adopted in 1890, New Zealand courts interpreted income as not including income from capital. The definition of income has never been further defined in the tax act. At the same time, an opposite ruling was made in the United States, where all income, regardless of how it is earned, would be treated equally.
Since April 2019, after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ruled out taxing capital income, the median house price has increased by more than 50 per cent.
The median house costs over a million dollars today. This is in modern-day New Zealand, where we can directly trace problems from child poverty to low productivity and growth back to housing.
A family of four living in a motel room isn’t just physically cramped; it’s mentally cramped. Your horizons are limited. Your relationships are affected. You are robbed of the time and space to find your place in the world.
If the place where you lay your head is not guaranteed, how can you find the space in your head to become the person you’re meant to be?
The house where I live now is where I have lived longest in my life, where my kids grew up, and where our family dog lived and is now buried.
It’s big, sunny, and beautiful, surrounded by trees and gardens. Now the kids have left, and their absence is a quiet emptiness in every room. In the holidays, they still come “home.”
One day we will leave here, and memories in rooms where we cooked, laughed, argued, and shared will make that day hard.
The kids will still come home because home is more than a location. It’s the place where the family gathers.
Home is part of who we are.
Perhaps “home” is not where we come from, but somewhere we are always going. Peacefulness at the end of the day, comfort in simple pleasures, a cup of coffee in the sun—a smile between people who share a space and a story.
Another childhood memory: Watching the TV series “Little House on the Prairie” with my best friend. Possibly after a day in our pigsty camp and remembering this line:
“Home is the nicest word there is.”