Living in a house of hospitality

For most of the last six years, I have lived in two intentional “houses of hospitality” (we got kicked out of one then started another six months later). Now that’s not a term that’s used very often, so I’ll explain what I mean by it.

Essentially it means we have opened our doors to anybody who needs somewhere to stay – either short term (many travellers or people in emergency situations stay for a night or a few days) or longer (occasionally people stay for 3-6 months). Short term we never ask for payment, though if people stay more than a couple of weeks we ask them to contribute to rent. We don’t advertise anywhere, though through word of mouth and things like our presence on the street doing a weekly street meal means we have a pretty constant stream of people. It’s not uncommon for us to have a dozen or more people staying at our (rented, five bedroom) house between guests and permanent residents.

These houses have done other things (community meals, film/discussion nights, political activism, simple and communal living) but probably the most distinctive feature has been our emphasis on hospitality. Often it has been a wonderful experience, sometimes not – we have been physically threatened, lied to and stolen from by people we have welcomed in. We have had to ask questions about whether we are just enabling destructive behaviour and how to draw boundaries. We have little private space and our time is frequently interrupted by strangers arriving, or spent cleaning up the chaos of the house. And yet we very rarely turn anyone away. Recently a friend contacted me with a fairly reasonable question – “why do you live in a hospitality house?” I appreciated the query because it made me think again about the reasons. Once I had I thought I could share them here for everyone.

First off I should say we didn’t come up with the idea. Our house is part of a specific tradition of houses called the Catholic Worker movement, and through history there have been many other examples including temples, monasteries and shelters. In many cultures there is a norm of offering hospitality to strangers, and things like the couchsurfing website show that though uncommon, it is not extinct in our own culture. Still, I’ll offer this as an explanation of my own (my housemates would have similar) reasons.

First off, I do it because I have a house I can offer. A house is an example of an abundant resource – you can offer it to somebody else, yet you still have it for yourself. Some resources are finite and need to be limited, but many – like shelter – there is easily enough for everybody if we don’t take more than we need and we share what we have. If we take shelter as a basic human need, there is no reason why something as simple as a safe place to stay should not be available to everyone when it is so easy to offer.

Secondly, it’s fun and interesting having different people come. I haven’t travelled overseas very much, but I’ve had people from around the world come to my own loungeroom, as well as people from all kinds of different backgrounds and persuasions. I have few lonely nights at home alone, and when I travel myself there are often places I can stay because they are the homes of people who have stayed at my own house. Offering hospitality to anyone introduces us to a diversity of people we would just not come across in our lives otherwise; where we tend to gravitate towards people of similar ages, backgrounds and beliefs.

It can also make a real difference to the people who stay. I will never forget one random guy I met on the street one cold night and invited to come and stay. He told me in the morning I had saved his life. Most cases aren’t that extreme, but certainly plenty of people who come to our house are in pretty great need. Even the ones who are not, staying at our house offers an insight into a very different way of living (and not just because of our open doors) and thinking. As many people travel to try to discover more about the world and themselves, our house can offer a valuable new discovery.

Another reason is that it challenges me to put my beliefs into practice every day. It’s easy to say there should be no homelessness or people should be more generous and less selfish. But living the way we do forces us to understand the complexity of issues and to come into contact with our own selfishness and complacency in the face of others’ needs. It takes concepts like love, generosity and tolerance; even a critique of private property; from the realm of ideas and into the sometimes difficult world of praxis.

Similar to that, I have over the years subscribed to a pretty counter-cultural idea known as anarchism. The idea that no person should use force over any other; which when taken to its logical conclusion implies a possible society with no prisons, police or property laws; also without enforced taxation or the welfare state as we know it. It’s my belief that for such an ideology to hold any credibility, I have to be willing to engage with some of the more difficult issues that many in our society are happy to pass on to the state to deal with. It also keeps our politics grounded – issues such as homelessness, drug addiction, mental illness and refugees; which don’t necessarily affect me personally at least become things I have personal contact with.

A long time ago I came to the conclusion that private property was a great big scam. Who allowed people to claim ownership of the earth they did nothing to create? And by what power did the first landlords take control of their property if not by violence? I rejected the system and lived without paying rent in squats for a while; but was lured back into the property market by friends wanting to rent a hospitality house and have dutifully paid my rent over the last few years. That’s been a sacrifice I’ve been happy to make, but to be honest the thought of paying rent just for somewhere to exist on the earth without that also going to a project overtly trying to create a better world would for me just be depressing.

“I’m not moving into one of your utopian experiments” was what a friend told me once when I offered him a room in one of those squats many years ago. Utopianism gets a bad wrap these days, but living in a hospitality house isn’t some kind of delusion – it’s a willingness to stake your house on the idea that we could live in a way very different to how the world is now. It’s also a belief that these changes can be brought about by ordinary people using the resources we already have at our disposal. It’s not easy to change the world, but with a few good friends we can change our immediate surroundings to be more like the kind of world we wish we lived in.

We offer our house up to those who walk in our doors as a roof over their heads, food in their belly, friendly faces but also as an alternative vision of what our homes, our lives and our world could be like. We also offer an invitation to be a part of trying to create that in our own flawed way. And that is something precious to us – something the occasional difficulties or inconveniences of living in this way can’t take away. So our doors will stay open. Come drop in some time.

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