Uprooted Identity


By Jess Goulart

Photo courtesy of Franco Follini.

There’s a reason Dorothy clicked her heels repeating, “There’s no place like home;” a reason for the expressions “Home is where the heart is,” “All the comforts of home,” and “Home away from home;” a reason countless stories are built upon leaving, returning to, or finding a home.

The concept of home is an integral part of human identity. For starters, where we come from is one of the first identifiers used when meeting new people, and it instantly conjures up location-dependent assumptions. For instance, if someone is from Hawaii, we automatically think they love the beach. Or someone from Alaska loves skiing, someone from Italy loves pasta.

Figuratively, a home helps us to feel grounded in an uncertain world. In an article published by Real Simple, readers wrote in with descriptions of what home was to them, and the words “comfort,” “peace,” and “cozy” appear over and over again, along with the idea that home is where you can truly be yourself.

So what happens to that sense of self when you don’t have a physical home?

“What my research found is that there’s definitely certain factors that can negatively affect someone’s identity around homelessness,” Dr. Josie Parker, research project manager at the Pathways Community Network Institute, tells BTR. Parker researches the “social psychological strategies” homeless people utilize to create identities without a physical home. Her eventual goal is to understand what is needed for people to move away from homelessness.

Parker found that, contrary to previous research, homeless people do not globally have low self-esteem or low self-efficacy. Instead, “homelessness” starts to become incorporated into a person’s identity and then determines other facets of how they see themselves.

“Someone who identifies as homeless is more likely to have low self-esteem than someone who does not,” she says. “Someone who, say, sees their situation as temporary rather than a part of who they are.”

Her research also shows the longer people are homeless the more likely it is for them to start incorporating homelessness into their identity, and that is when their self-esteem decreases.

Perhaps this is due, in part, to the outside world’s typically dismissive or callous response to the homeless. As photographer David Sleppy documented in his work No One Sees Me, homeless people often report feeling invisible or ignored.

It follows, then, that Parker found another facet greatly affected by the homeless identity is interpersonal relationships. Someone who has stronger ties to other homeless people sees themselves as more capable because of the support system and actually has a higher chance of successfully exiting homelessness.

Photo courtesy of Transformer18.

Parker’s work explores the effect on identity when a person is forced into physical homelessness, but there are also millions of people who experience a sort of existential homelessness and, to combat it, they voluntarily leave home.

“The assumption in migration literature is that if you chose to leave home there’s no problem–that’s freedom. But my research showed that, in fact, choosing to migrate doesn’t make it any less meaningful or difficult,” Dr. Greg Madison tells BTR.

Madison, a Chartered Psychologist (BPS) and Registered Existential Psychotherapist (UKCP), researches people who leave home of their own accord, often because of an internal pressure rather than an outside force.

Most qualify that pressure as the inability to “feel at home” in the place they grew up. That encompasses people who experience abuse or childhood traumas, but extends beyond them to people who intuitively feel they can’t become “themselves” unless they migrate.

Madison explains that, in the countless workshops on voluntary migration he conducts around the world, there is often a refugee who remarks that their situation was different because they were running for their lives.

“But a lot of the people who choose to leave home also feel that they are running for their lives, quite literally,” he says. “It certainly seems that people think who you can be is closely related to where you are.”

He found people who voluntarily leave home still feel the act as an inconsolable, almost bodily loss, though he says that he has never met anyone who regretted the decision.

As Madison and Parker respectively demonstrate, whether physical or metaphysical, our “home” directly influences how we see ourselves.