Author: Thum Yong Ze Aloysius

What is a home to you? Where can we call home? To understand the meaning of homelessness, we need to first dwell into the conception of a home. A home goes beyond just a physical housing but is also a sense of social belonging and connection. As Somerville (1992) explains, a home “is not just a matter of feelings and lived experience but also of cognition and intellectual construction”. It is this sense of ‘homeliness’ – a place where we feel not just physically safe but also a sense of mental solace, that we feel like home. 

What is a Home?

There are seven dimensions of a home – shelter; hearth; heart; privacy; roots; abode; and paradise (Somerville 1992). A home gives protection and a roof over the head, creating a comfortable cosy atmosphere. It is through this atmosphere that one is able to establish meaningful social relations within his or her space and partake in community life, forming bonds and social relationship. In this safe environment, people are allowed to withdraw from these relationships when they need the privacy. In this community, it presents an emotional stability for the individual that is based on mutual affection and support. Finally, a home gives a sense of ownership to a place and invokes a sense of identity that comes with a home. 

What is Homelessness?

Homelessness, on the other hand, represents all the opposite and is tainted with negative connotations of “coldness, indifference, stress, misery, alienation, instability, etc” (Somerville 1992). Hence, homelessness is a multidimensional concept that represents not only rooflessness, but also rootlessness

According to UN estimates, there are an estimated 100 million homeless people around the world, where people live in inadequate housing situations and are deemed homeless (UN 2005). In the Netherlands, around 30.500 people – or 0.18% of the Dutch population – are affected (OECD 2019). Defining homelessness can be difficult as it is often subjective as it differs from state to state. People who live without a shelter and sleeps in public areas that were not intended for human habitation are known to be experiencing “primary homelessness”, while “secondary homelessness” refers to individuals that are living in temporary accommodation (UN 2015). In either case, homelessness is seen both a cause and symptom of human rights denial, violations and abuse.

Not Just a Circumstance, But a Label

When we talk about the homelessness, it represents not just the circumstances, but it is also a label that we tie with a social identity and group that is subjected to systemic discrimination, stigmatization and social exclusion (UN 2015). These are the most vulnerable members of society that are abandoned, in despair, and eroded of any self-esteem and dignity, whom are constantly subjected to intimidation and harassment by the authorities and public. This condition of detachment from society is characterised by the “absence or attenuation of affiliative bonds that link settled persons to a network of interconnected social structures” (Tipple and Speak 2005). The symbolic status of a home is set in the complex context of social status relations. Beyond living without a roof, the homeless are the invisible, the outcast and the rejected. 


OECD (2019). “HC3.1 Homeless Population.” OECD Directorate of Employment, Labour and Social Affairs. At

Olufemi, O. (2002). “Barriers that disconnect homeless people and make homelessness difficult to interpret.” Development Southern Africa 19(4):455-466. 

Somerville, P. (1992). “Homelessness and the Meaning of Home: Rooflessness or Rootlessness?” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 16(4): 529-539.

Tipple, G. and Speak, S. (2005). “Definitions of Homelessness in Developing Countries.” Habitat International 29: 337-325.

UN (2015). Report of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context. General Assembly, Human Rights Council, 31, 30 Dec 2015. 

Zimmerman, L. (2013). Homelessness. The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the Contemporary World. 

Rooflessness or Rootlessness: What is the Home in Homelessness?

You May Also Like