The Meaning of "Home"

How do you address homelessness in a way that’s effective, realistic, and not pollyannaish? By being honest about what the word really means...

There’s a hidden aspect of homelessness that's often ignored, or, if not ignored, too difficult to articulate properly. But, at his recent TED Talk in NYC, Kevin Adler addressed this aspect head on.

There's a huge difference, Kevin explained, between houselessness and homelessness. That’s because the word “house” doesn’t actually describe what homeless people lack. What’s missing for the nearly 600,000 homeless people in the United States is not a physical home, but a social one.

Kevin’s organization Miracle Messages rebuilds these "social homes" by recording personal messages from homeless people to their lapsed loved ones. The results have so far been unprecedented. The project has caught the attention of not only TED, but The New York Times, NPR, and even Daybreaker.

It seems like such an easy solution, such a deceptively simple answer, that it should have been discovered before. However, reconnecting homeless people with their social homes is much more difficult that you’d imagine. We asked Kevin to tell us why.

Where did this idea come from?

My uncle had been a homeless person for 30 years, but I never saw him as a homeless man. He was my uncle. He remembered every birthday. He was the guest of honor at Thanksgiving. After he passed away, I just started saying hello to and having conversations with people in similar situations to understand their world. What I heard shocked me. 

Over and over again, I heard different versions of the same story. "I never realized I was homeless when I lost my housing. Only when I lost my family and friends.” I realized that was an underappreciated aspect of what causes homelessness.

Kevin was recently featured by Daybreaker

What was your first video?

It started out with me taking a walk down Market street in San Francisco and asking every person I met if they'd like to leave a holiday message, a short video message to a family member or friend they hadn't seen in a while. I met a man named Jeffrey, who hadn't seen his family in 24 years. He recorded a video and a few days later I posted the video on a Facebook group connected to his hometown, a small little town in Pennsylvania. Within about an hour, hundreds of people commented and shared the post. The story made the local news, messages poured in from former classmates and neighbors who knew Jeffrey and wanted to help.

Within the first 20 minutes of the post, his sister Jennifer was tagged, and she and I spoke the next day, on Christmas, and she told me that not only had Jeffrey been out of touch for 24 years, he'd been a missing person for the last 12 years! They were able to reunite on a phone call, and earlier this year Jennifer traveled by train across the country to reunite with her brother. That was something pretty extraordinary. That was really the initial launch of what became Miracle Messages.

As someone who has seen this up close with your uncle, why would you say homelessness happens?

People experience houselessness [not homelessness] for a variety of reasons. Job loss, domestic violence, mental illness, which was the case with my uncle (he suffered from schizophrenia). What we're talking about here is not houselessness. There's many reasons why people end up on the streets. But to be out of touch with your connection, your network, your social support system is a different thing. That comes from emotional reasons. Feeling embarrassed, feeling ashamed, feeling unlovable, feeling worthless. 

So what exactly is the difference between houselessness and homelessness?

When we talk to homeless people and ask them if they'd like to record a message and they say no, the most common response is, "I can't, I feel dirty. I feel filthy, I feel worthless. I don't want to be a burden." That's something we can play a role in addressing. Again, it means understanding homelessness is not just houselessness. Those are not synonymous, but we often think of them that way. We need to understand that homelessness is lacking stable housing and lacking a social support system and a sense of belonging. What we call the “social home.”

How do you define the “social home”?

There's a physical home, that's where you lay your head at night. Then there's a social home—that's your network, your family, your close friends, your neighbors, your classmates. People who got your back, who you can lay your head in their hands. We all have social homes. They're our social networks. It’s, if we're going to get academic here, what we refer to as social capital. 

How does this dichotomy play into your mission?

What we've seen is that by prioritizing the social home first, by helping people rebuild relationships, that leads to many benefits, one of which can be stable housing. We've got it all wrong as a society. We're looking at it entirely the wrong way. If someone is defined by their lack of one physical need and we can't meet that need as a passerby or as a neighbor or even a volunteer, we feel bad about ourselves. We feel like we're not doing our part, and so what do we do? We disengage, we ignore the person, we write them off as a leper, we assume that they've done something to deserve being on the streets. And that's on us. 

We've got it all wrong as a society. We're looking at it entirely the wrong way.”

Do you think that anybody wants to be homeless?

Sure, yeah, I mean there are people. It's a little more complicated than that though. Do you say that the 17-year-old who's fed up with living in an abusive home and has escaped it and is now living in Golden Gate Park, do they want to be homeless? I mean, they want to be out of that situation with their family. They don't want to be abused. It's very difficult to classify that as voluntarily homeless, right? That's a byproduct of a couple bad situations.

I think there's probably very, very few people who just say, yeah, I want to live on the streets for its own sake. I want to shit in public. I want to beg and be humiliated. That's just the life I want to live. That sounds great. There's something going on if that sounds great to you.

How do you decide who to film?

We set up chapters in different communities and we have a chapter handbook and a mobile app that they can download, learn about how to set up a chapter, connect with their friends or others in their community who might be interested in being part of the chapter. 

Then one of the first steps is to connect with local homeless service providers. We're not reinventing the wheel here, we're not walking the streets with clipboards. We're going to local nonprofits, shelters, food service providers, libraries, meal programs, ministry programs. Places where individuals experiencing homelessness live and spend their time. 

How do you find the family members?

We have a network of volunteer detectives, people all around the world, who use their digital savvy, their internet sleuthing skills for good. We use Google, Facebook, White Pages, and then the local chapters.

What’s an example of an amazing reunion story?

There's a ton of them. Let's see. Ten days ago today a woman named Juanita, she hadn't seen her family in 29 years. She recorded a video earlier this year, in South Florida, and a 15-year-old girl who's a volunteer helped record her video. On the ride home the girl is on Facebook, and she knows what she's doing, and she finds the family pretty quickly. We send them a message, they get reconnected on a phone call, and 10 days ago today Juanita flew home to be with her family for Christmas. There was this beautiful reunion. Twenty-nine years having not had any contact, and now they're spending the next couple months together as a family.

Do you think there’s more of a tendency for people to get isolated from their "social homes" in the United States than in other countries?

Possibly, but to be honest we've had over 4,500 people reach out from across the world. We have people from Sydney, we have a chapter up and running in London, we have chapters in Calgary, Canada. We've had inquiries in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Iran, in Baghdad, Turkey, Greece. I think it's easy to white wash the sheer extent of how many people are disconnected from their social support systems. 

I think in the U.S., if we go back to Alexis de Tocqueville, 1830's, Democracy in America, the unique quality of what makes this country phenomenal, at least in the eyes of this incredibly astute French thinker, was that Americans, wherever they are, whatever they're doing, they're forever forming associations. Whether it's a playground that needs to be erected, or a church fundraiser that needs to be had, we’re doing it. 

“Twenty-nine years having no contact, and now they're spending the next couple months together as a family.”

Outside of de Tocqueville who else do you read?

Right now I've been going through a couple books. Chris Anderson has been very helpful preparing for my TED talk and it's a great guide to public speaking, thinking of public speaking more as a conversation.

Greg McEwan's Essentialism has me focused on priority, realizing that life its not a question of yes or no, but a question of definitely yes or no. If you can't say definitely yes, then it’s probably no.

Then I'm a little bit…I went to public school kindergarten to 12th grade, and I've been fortunate to go to really great colleges, but there's some foundational texts that I think I glossed through. I’m definitely going back to Shakespeare from time to time. Even like a Shakespeare for Dummies book! Just getting a better understanding of the Bard. I've been pretty much head down preparing for this TED talk for the last month, so I've been pretty illiterate and I'm excited to spend some time reading again. 

Do you wish you’d gone into something more profitable than fighting homelessness?

At some point you just have to do something that you have a passion for, that you love, that you can make a difference doing. And that lasts a lot longer than money.

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