What Makes a House a Home

Writing from time to time for what the media calls “shelter” publications, you catch yourself wondering about the difference between a set of sterile, starkly beautiful rooms and a place that is just as beautiful, but also warm and homey. It should be obvious to say “lived-in,” but some homeowners (schooled by their interior designers no doubt) do their very best to erase all signs of human presence.

I like a scatter of books and magazines, myself, and a pair of felted slippers halfway under the sofa. A kitchen table big enough for friends who drop in. A fireplace. A quiet nook where you can read undisturbed. A private, sunlit space in which to write.

When the Rev. Gerald Kleba told me, all excited, about the newest Assisi House, saying how beautiful and homey it was, I asked if I could come see it—but not for several months. I wanted to wait until the residents had settled in, so I could see how these men—after living in an alley, or a car, or a different temporary shelter every night—turned an old church rectory into a home.

Formont Nolan (left) and Robert Smith at the newest Assisi House

When I pull up, a man is standing on the front porch. “We’re waiting for an ambulance,” he says, kindly but distracted. “Popcorn’s leg is so black, it’s almost necrosed.” He introduces himself as Robert Smith, then adds that “it’s the third most common name in the U.S.; I looked it up.”

I wait with him, Popcorn’s groans audible from deep inside the house. When the paramedics stream out of the ambulance, I duck inside, out of the way.

The dining room is painted sea mist (at least, that is what the shelter mags would call this soft blue-green), with white trim, and the tables and chairs are dark wood. There are paintings, bowls of fruit, bits of donated elegance. My nose tingles; a bottle of Sparkle glass cleaner sits on the sideboard. Bus schedules are stacked on the fireplace mantel.

I peek into a small TV room. (House manager Formont Nolan bought the TV with his own money, he tells me later; there is another one upstairs, but not everybody can manage the stairs easily.) Two men are watching TV, and the one in a sparkly skullcap shakes his head woefully every time we hear Popcorn moan or yell. Still, it is puzzling how little fuss there is. I am used to people crowding around, batting back each other’s advice. These guys are a little more withdrawn, not used to being the one who “fixes” things. Instead, they worry quietly. One man recalls Popcorn moving like he was in pain earlier that morning.

“That leg needs to come off,” another man, Jeremy, says in a low voice, joining me in the dining room. His handshake is as gentle and light as someone handling a baby bird, his voice soft, his skin grayed. “The leg’s swollen and bleeding. I guess he’s been carrying this for a while.” The verb catches my attention; we carry burdens around the way somebody without a home has to lug his stuff, because there is no safe place to lay it down.

Jeremy has carried quite a bit himself, it turns out: “I have chronic liver disease and chronic memory loss,” he says, “and COPD, and now they think cancer. They’re gonna run a camera someplace they’re not supposed to.”

“AAaiiiiyyyeeeeooooowwwwfuck!” Popcorn yells as they wheel him backwards down the narrow hall on an office chair, one paramedic pulling carefully and the other walking in a squat, like a Russian dancer, to hold the trunk-like leg steady. Once he is safely on the ambulance, Smith heaves a sigh of relief and straightens the hall runner.

Since 2014, six Assisi houses have opened. The houses are single-sex and charge a modest rent ($250). Residents can make a permanent home there, as long as they honor the rules: no drugs, limited visitors, cleanliness. Not unlike a young ladies’ boarding house in midcentury Manhattan.

“The police haven’t been called once to any of these houses,” Kleba told me, ashamed that he once worried. “I was a crepehanger. But no one expected it to go this smoothly.” St. Louis Winter Outreach was founded to keep people without homes from freezing to death. Volunteers pushed the idea further, using private funding to acquire one house a year, make it a winter shelter, then convert it to permanent housing for a smaller number of residents.

Smith will help manage the next shelter; he has graduated into employment, as did Nolan, so their real names can be used; the others are pseudonyms. “Yeah, everyone always thinks if you’re homeless, you’re either an alcoholic, a drug addict, or a vagrant of some type,” Smith says, reading the question in my eyes. “No matter how smart you are, something like this can happen.” Back in Oklahoma, he took care of his father, who had anesthesia-induced dementia, while his stepmother worked on a degree in Cherokee language studies (“She wants to become a wind talker”) in a nearby town. Then they moved to Oregon, and he was not invited along. He came to St. Louis to stay with a friend—who then decided to move to Florida. “A series of unfortunate events,” he says. “I’m a Lemony Snicket all by myself.”

Once a database administrator, Smith has been dealing with back issues for the past dozen years. “The last of three back surgeries nicked a nerve,” he says, “and now I have peripheral neuropathy in both legs.” After his friend left town, he wound up sleeping in a bunk bed at a men’s shelter, with strangers half an arm’s length away on either side and somebody either above or below him. “I’d wedge myself into a corner of the bunk and type on my book. That was the only time I felt safe.”

He shows me his room, and when I admire the striped bedspread, he announces that it’s reversible and flips it back with a flourish to reveal the floral underside. Then he shows me one of the two books he has published on Amazon, Fast Trac by R. Clayton Smith. With that income plus disability, he says, he should be able to manage.

I ask what difference it makes having his own room. “Everybody needs to have their own space,” he says. “I almost think it’s primal. We grow up and our parents tell us, ‘Go to your room.’ ‘Go to your room.’ Your room is your sanctuary. It’s where you can be you.” He has gained twenty pounds since he moved here, he says. “I lost twenty at the shelter, and it’s the same food. But instead of sixty different guys every night and never knowing who you can trust, here there are fourteen guys, and I know them all by name.” Moving room by room, he lists off the residents, their quirks and strengths and nicknames.

The place is not an idyll; one guy used sand as a dropcloth to spray-paint bike parts, so he wound up painting the porch. And there is always somebody who has to be nudged to clean. “Two had drug problems, and they worked themselves out of here.” One man has a mild case of schizophrenia, “but you can say, ‘You’re talking too loud,’ and he’ll calm back down again. Another has a little bit of a drinking problem, and he’s trying to work through it. Eventually, you’re going to get a stable group. There’s probably four guys who are big cleaners, always mopping, and a couple that keep the bathrooms clean. When we start paying rent, we will be responsible for our own food, and we are just going to have to rely on each other.”

Nolan offers me a tour: “It’s a big ol’ place, man. This is the mudroom here.” Two washing machines, two dryers, immaculate. Upstairs, we pass a nook with white bookshelves, a big sunny window, and an armchair and ottoman. I am reminded of my original purpose.

“What makes a house feel homey to you?” I ask Nolan. “You know, like a big round kitchen table or a fireplace or—”

Smiling, he shakes his head. “It’s the love that people give you. Getting along, caring for each other. And no fighting. Once we are in this house together, we’re family.”

Today’s crisis pretty well defined it: Home is the place where people will help you, notice your suffering, call you an ambulance, worry about how you will hate having to use a wheelchair. The place where you can let down your guard. My shallowness stings for a minute—but then I realize why a reading nook matters in the first place. It means you can be undisturbed, safe and cozy and peaceful, your privacy respected.

And that is the greatest luxury of all.