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The Home is Not Where the Heart Is

The Importance of Four Walls: How Should We Define ‘Home’?

Written by Ujjwala Singh

To effectively understand homelessness, we must define what ‘home’ means. The concept of a home is significant to all of us and is often defined using emotional language. The adage ‘the home is where the heart is’ elucidates the emotions attached to the concept of a home and is a good way to define such an abstract concept. However, the definition of ‘home’ is significant in areas other than everyday life: the process of lawmaking requires a practical definition of the term to improve the homelessness crisis. Several academics and scholars hence have taken the task of defining ‘home’ on for themselves and conducted thorough research in the field.

One of the influential academics in this discussion is Jeremy Waldron. In Waldron’s paper, ‘Homelessness and the Issue of Freedom’, he uses a home’s (perceived) functions to define the term. According to Waldron, homes allow individuals a safe place to carry out “primal human tasks” (Homelessness and the Issue of Freedom, 1991). Homelessness is therefore shelter lessness. This definition, although practical in its nature, completely rejects the abstract feelings often attached to homes. If used in lawmaking, the definition can therefore allow for a lower standard of living in council homes, with little importance being placed on community and emotional wellbeing. It is for this reason that Jenkins and Brownlee claim Waldron’s position creates a fairly “low standard”. On the other hand, it can be argued that while the term home does carry emotional undertones in everyday life, it is the law’s job to be straightforward. The law may be able to take the more analytical approach toward defining the term to ensure the resources it uses are used efficiently and less people sleep rough.

Essert, on the other hand, posits that a home gives its owner a property right; that it is the property right attached to the home that should be used to define the term. From this perspective, the property right and the control it gives to us is the primary function of a home. This definition, although a step above Waldron’s, brings into question whether those living in their partners’ home or elders dependent on their children (to name a few) are ‘homeless’. If the crux of a home is the property right it conveys, then this definition would categorise thousands of people as ‘homeless’ and as a result, be rather inefficient. A case can be made that Essert’s definition of a home could aid those understanding property interests for the first time. However, the definition’s practicality is its biggest drawback.

Although there isn’t a consensus amongst academics as to how the term should be defined, the UK, like many other countries, has been able to construct its definition of a ‘home’ to tackle homelessness in the country. Via the Housing Act 1966, the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 and other laws, the UK government is attempting to reduce homelessness as best it can. However, as of 2023, 270,000 people are recorded as homeless (Shelter, 2023) with 123,000 being children. How we define a home, and consequently, homelessness, may therefore need to be reconsidered.


Ujjwala Singh is a penultimate year Law student at King’s College London. She is the President of the King’s Poetry Society and has recently published her debut poetry novel. She is interested in private equity and corporate law and is an aspiring commercial solicitor.

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