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.

Origins

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.