Sorting by

Skip to main content

There’s No Place Like Home

Steve Bouma-Prediger

If you ever met them, you wouldn’t think that Kenneth and Kenny share much more than their names. But even their names are different. No one would ever call Kenneth “Kenny” and “Kenneth” doesn’t even appear on Kenny’s birth certificate. No, Kenny was Kenny from the beginning.

There are, however, a few things they have in common. They are both male, white, and of English descent. And we could say that they are neighbors, although they’ve never met. If Kenneth had ever seen Kenny, then the face and body of this particular neighbor certainly didn’t register. Kenneth was probably on his way to a meeting when he passed Kenny on the street.

You see, Kenny lives in the ravine with a couple of his brothers. They have a “squat” down there with a couple of tents, some furniture picked up on garbage day–maybe from in front of Kenneth’s place for all we know. Kenny and the boys live close to nature. Real close. In fact, when a flash flood hit the river, they almost drowned. They lost everything and had to start to cobble together tents, sleeping bags, and some cast off furniture all over again. One of the local street outreach organizations helped out, though the cops seemed pretty angry about having to save these guys.

Kenneth, however, enjoyed watching that violent thunderstorm from the vantage point of his 20th floor condominium. He happened to be in town that day. He actually has three other “homes” in other parts of North America. His business activities require him to work out of three cities, so Kenneth’s wife, Julie, suggested that they should have three places to live. That way Kenneth would not be stuck in boring hotels, and she could accompany him regardless of which office he is working out of at any particular time.

The condo is certainly comfortable. One bedroom, two baths, living room, dining room, den, patio, and a very wellequipped kitchen. All of their kitchens are well-equipped: the latest in time-saving devices, the best in china and cutlery, a constantly well stocked pantry and fridge, and, of course, a wine cabinet with the choicest vintages.

Kenneth and Kenny are neighbors, but they don’t have that much in common. Kenny panhandles at a busy intersection–one that Kenneth drives by with some frequency. Kenny likes cars but could not ever afford one. Actually in his earlier days he had a bit of a problem with drinking and driving. Of course, Kenneth drank and drove too, but always carefully.

Well, maybe that’s something that Kenneth and Kenny share. They both like cars and they’ve both enjoyed a drink once in a while. Kenneth drinks better stuff than Kenny, but the inebriating effects are similar. Of course, Kenny is also a drug addict–crack cocaine, to be precise. Kenneth often needs a little bit of a sedative to get to sleep at night–usually chased with a single malt scotch. But he isn’t an addict or anything. Not unless you count the walk-in closet with twenty-five suits, fifty shirts, fifteen pair of shoes and more ties than you could imagine.

Kenny is poor and homeless. Kenneth is rich and has three homes. Kenny is down and out and essentially voiceless in our society. Kenneth is among the rich and powerful and when he speaks, people listen. Kenny is dirty and can be a little foul-mouthed. Kenneth showers every day, shaves twice, has impeccable teeth and speaks with an educated eloquence. Kenny likes the heavy metal bands of his youth; Kenneth frequents the opera.

There are other things that are different about Kenny and Kenneth. You see, because Kenny lives in the ravine, he knows that white tailed deer and coyotes are becoming plentiful in the city again. He has seen the odd salmon and trout make its way up the river. And while sometimes he’s too strung out or hung over to notice, there are some days when Kenny notices migrating magnolia warblers and Baltimore orioles flying past his squat.

Warblers and orioles don’t fly past Kenneth’s place. And he could never notice deer or coyote from way up there. Kenneth and Julie’s place (thanks to Julie and the condo staff ) is beautiful and the interior design consultant did a wonderful job. But the only plants up there are, of course, potted. Very nice, but a little limited.

Kenny and the boys, however, are surrounded by vegetation. Admittedly a lot of it is weeds and invasive species like Manitoba maple, but the birds don’t seem to mind, and more vegetation means that the squat is totally invisible from the road, which affords the guys at least a little privacy.

Kenneth and Kenny are neighbors but they do not know each other. Kenneth doesn’t really know any of his neighbors at the condo either. With only two units per floor, he has only been in the elevator with the other 20th floor couple once over the last three years. And since he is only at this “home” for about a week a month, there isn’t really time to make friends with the neighbors.

Kenny, however, knows a lot of folks in the neighborhood. Every morning that he can get up (often in pretty bad shape) he makes his way to the local street outreach ministry and helps cook for other homeless folks.   Kenny is poor and homeless. Kenneth is rich and has three homes. Kenny is down and out and essentially voiceless in our society. Kenneth is among the rich and powerful and when he speaks people listen. Kenny is dirty. Kenneth showers every day.   Kenny likes to cook, and he really likes to cook for people like himself who have no money and nowhere else to eat. He can get really excited when some fresh greens are available from the local community garden because he knows that a diet of starch and fat isn’t all that good for his street friends. He also knows that Alice–his sometimes on, most times off, Aboriginal girlfriend–loves salad.

So here’s the question. Who is homeless here? Kenneth or Kenny? Kenny is a local statistic of homelessness. He isn’t just under-housed, he has no house at all. Kenneth, however, is, if anything, over-housed. Three–count them–three houses. But Kenny knows something about the ecosystem in which he lives and is deeply committed to the community of the homeless drug addicts and prostitutes that he counts as his friends. Kenneth and Julie have a lot of business acquaintances, but they don’t know their neighbors.

Kenny has lived in that ravine for three years. Kenneth has split his time among the condo, the other two places, and innumerable business trips and vacations over the last three years. Kenny is a man of one place, Kenneth is a man of numerous places. Kenny walks. Kenneth has a car in each of his three garages across the continent.

There is no denying that Kenny is homeless. And there is no virtue in esteeming Kenny’s impoverished, drug-addicted life. But again we need to ask: who is homeless here? Do Kenneth and Julie really experience any place in the world as “home” to them? In their wealth, their mobility, their power, are they any less homeless than Kenny? Or maybe that is the wrong way to put the question. Maybe we need to ask whether Kenny and Kenneth are both deeply homeless, albeit in different ways?

Home is, among other things, a matter of place. Edward Casey has written that

…to lack a primal place is to be ‘homeless’ indeed, not only in the literal sense of having no permanently sheltering structure but also as being without any effective means of orientation in a complex and confusing world. By late modern times, this world has become increasingly placeless, a matter of mere sites instead of lived places, of sudden displacements rather than of perduring implacements.1

To be “home” is to experience some place as “primal,” as first, as a place with which one has a profound sense of connection, identity, and even love. To be emplaced is to have a point of orientation. Homelessness, then, is a matter of profound and allpervasive displacement. Homelessness is a matter of placelessness. <

Now let’s come back to Kenny and Kenneth. If homelessness is a matter of displacement, then who is homeless here? Who has a “place” and who is “placeless”? In some respects, both Kenneth and Kenny have a place. And by this we don’t just mean that they both have a place to sleep each night–very different places, but a place nonetheless. They also have a “place” in their respective worlds.

Kenny is the guy who makes breakfast at the local outreach center. He is known as being a little loud, and sometimes needs to be calmed down, but in this community of homeless folk Kenny clearly has a place. He is respected and admired for his concern for his neighbors. He is also a little feared by those who have been on the receiving end of his anger. And at that busy intersection, Kenny or one of his brothers can be clearly seen at their place asking for change when the cars are stopped for a red light.

In his very different world, Kenneth also has his place. He’s an executive with many people who work “under” him. His place is on top. He is a well respected member of the church and appreciated for the largesse of his donations. He is Julie’s husband, and they cut a fine form together. And he seems to be “at-home” in boardrooms, executive lounges at airports, and flying business class.

Both Kenny and Kenneth have their “place.” They are both at-home in their respective worlds. And yet they are both, in important respects, homeless. They both experience deep displacement in their lives.

Kenny may have his place volunteering at the local center, but his drug addiction, emotional outbursts, foul language and poorly developed social skills make it impossible for him to ever find a place in regular employment. As a part of the homeless underclass of our society, Kenny is economically displaced. At best he exists on the very margins of normal economic life.   Kenneth and Kenny both have their “place” in their respective worlds. And yet they are both profoundly displaced. Both of these men are homeless, though in different ways.   And while Kenny’s tenure in the ravine is as long as Kenneth’s in the condo, and Kenny is more attuned to his place in that ravine than Kenneth is in the condo, there is still something deeply precarious about Kenny’s squat in the ravine that leaves him displaced and homeless in ways that Kenneth clearly is not. Though Kenny lives in the ravine 365 days a year, he is outside of the bounds of “normal” society, subject to the threat of weather, illegally squatting on city land, constantly dependent upon the charity of others, and always living at the edge of violence. Kenny’s place provides only a semblance of the kind of security that is necessary for a place to be home. He never knows when the next flash flood is going to wipe out his squat, or when the police are going to clear them out, or when he’s going to end up in the emergency ward from an overdose of bad crack.

As a homeless, poor, drug addicted man living in a squat on someone else’s land, Kenny is socially, economically, psychologically, legally and geographically displaced. And as a visible member of the homeless underclass we could also say that Kenny functions as a symbol of displacement, walking through the neighborhood with his shopping cart full of other people’s junk or sitting at the corner asking for change. Odd, isn’t it? Kenny has a place in our society as a symbol of displacement.

How about Kenneth? Kenneth’s social, economic and legal place in the world is secure. He has a very clear social place in both business and church, his economic place is clearly established as a very successful businessman and he has clear title on all three of his places of residence, with a lawyer in each city to tend to his legal affairs. And if you want a symbol of success, of having arrived, you couldn’t do better than Kenneth in a business suit driving in his BMW by Kenny at the side of the road.

But Kenneth doesn’t really “live” anywhere. The condo, in all of its opulence and fine taste, is a place where Kenneth is still displaced. This condo, like the other residences, is more the product of a high paid interior designer than anything that gives a sense of Kenneth and Julie’s life together. Like the mansions and the monster homes of the suburbs and exurban areas, this place, though tasteful, lacks any sense of permanence. Because Kenneth is on the move in his career, he needs a place that “can be conveniently marketed” any time he needs to move on to the next job.2 The condo is a utilitarian place “to inhabit, leave, and recirculate.”3

Kenny’s tenure in the ravine is precarious, but at least Kenny lives there. Kenneth “stays” in his various places, but he never has time to really get to know and to be connected with any one place. Wendell Berry has an explanation for this, but it isn’t an explanation that Kenneth would like: “Our present leaders–people of wealth and power–do not know what it means to take place seriously: to think it worthy, for its own sake, of love and careful work. They cannot take any place seriously because they must be ready at any moment, by the terms of power and wealth in the modern world, to destroy any place.”4 You see the contradiction here? Kenneth’s social, economic and legal place in the world not only requires that he be geographically displaced with no real home and that he have a willingness to leave any place in order to facilitate his upwardly mobile climb to who knows where, it also requires that he have the willingness to sacrifice any place–one’s own or someone else’s–for the sake of power and wealth.

Berry argues that “a rootless and placeless monoculture of commercial expectations and products” is inherently a culture of displacement, of homelessness.5 Kenneth’s life, in all of its wealthy opulence and security, moves in precisely such a rootless and placeless monoculture. He sinks no roots into any of the cities in which he resides, has no sense of place, knows nothing of the social history of any of the neighborhoods in which he lives, is blissfully unaware of the unique ecosystem that exists within a few blocks of his condo, and drinks coffee from the same chain of specialty coffee shops in every city he travels to. Kenneth is placeless and his business depends upon the willingness to exploit any place and render any people placeless if it will serve the interests of power and wealth.

But at least Kenneth has the power and wealth. That is something that he has that Kenny clearly lacks. And surely power and wealth can make even a life of displacement secure. Kenneth may be displaced in some very important ways, but his social, economic and legal place is secure. Or is it? Ever since 9/11 Kenneth has been anxious when he gets on a plane. And it isn’t just his own personal travel security that has him worried; he also knows that a world of international terrorism is a world of economic insecurity for all but those who deal in weapons, surveillance and private security. Kenneth never got into those areas of business. And these days he seems to spend an inordinate amount of time watching the stock market. Even during those few times that he and Julie eat at the condo, he has the television on with the stock reports scrolling across the bottom of the screen. It makes for a rather distracted meal. If the market crashes, then so does the 20th floor condo, the BMW, business class seats on airplanes, and all the suits. Kenneth’s distraction worries Julie. Sometimes she feels emotionally very alone, almost as if she has no real place in Kenneth’s world of finance. Displacement migrates from an overly mobile life to a sense of monoculture placelessness, to economic anxiety, to distraction, to Julie feeling emotionally displaced, to… Well, who knows where all of this will end up for Kenneth and Julie?

Kenneth and Kenny both have their ‘place’ in their respective worlds. And yet they are both profoundly d
isplaced. Both of these men are homeless, though in different ways. Kenny demonstrates the socio-economic homelessness that plagues Western society. Kenneth embodies a cultural homelessness rampant in an affluent society. Each in their own way poses this question: Is there a future beyond homelessness?

Christian faith envisions a future beyond homelessness–beyond the homelessness of both Kenneth and Kenny. Home, however, is a storied place. Home is always rooted in memory. But the question that faces us with the epidemic of homelessness in our time is, which memory? If the narrative of economic progress, incessant mobility, and ecological destruction has rendered both Kenneth and Kenny homeless in their own ways, then which memory, which narrative, might provide a foundation and a vision for homemaking in the face of this crisis?

Christians confidently and yet humbly confess that the narrative of covenantal homemaking that we find in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures is a life-giving narrative of home restoration. In this narrative and, more importantly, in the homemaking God we meet in this story, we are offered a vision of homecoming that can redemptively address our socio-economic, ecological, intellectual, and cultural homelessness. In this story we are invited home and by living in this story we are shaped by the virtues of homemaking. We are offered a place beyond our placelessness, a place in nothing less than a new creation. Only such a place can provide us with the home for which we so deeply long. Only such a God of overflowing love can nourish us for the journey. Only such a vision of God’s indwelling of all creation, of God coming home to us, can sustain us as a sojourning community in exile.


1 Edward Casey, Getting Back into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993), p. xv.
2 William Leach, The Country of Exiles: The Destruction of Place in American Life (New York: Vintage, 2000), p. 76.
3 Ibid., p. 77.
4 Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community (New York and San Francisco: Pantheon Books, 1992), p. 22.
5 Ibid., p. 151.

Steve Bouma-Prediger teaches in the Religion Department at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.
Brian Walsh is a Christian Reformed campus minister at the University of Toronto and adjunct professor of theology of culture at Wycliffe College.
This essay is adapted from a chapter in the forthcoming book Beyond Homelessness by Steve Bouma-Prediger and Brian J. Walsh. (Copyright Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008) and is used by permission of the publisher, all rights reserved.