Some people say being homeless is like being a nomad. This doesn't ring true to me. Not only that, sometimes I think maybe the truth is exactly the opposite.

Most homeless people don't want to be. Lots of people who rent are just a few paychecks away from eviction. Get fired, or get sick or hurt in some way that's not covered by insurance, and suddenly you're sleeping in a car if you're lucky, sleeping in a back alley if you're not. Sure, some homeless people claim they choose it. For most of those, it's really the mental illness or the alcoholism or the drug addiction talking. They don't really want to be homeless either, but overcoming homelessness and their other problems all at once is too much for them to handle. So they just try to adapt to a way of life where everyone expects them to be failures, anyway.

There's more to being homeless than finding new places to sleep all the time. In most places it's illegal to be homeless. (Never mind that this is a lot like making it illegal to die.) There's this unspoken contract. To survive being homeless, you have to learn a new skill. Stay invisible as much as possible, or someone will punish you. Civilization doesn't care that you have no place of your own to sleep. Civilization just won't let you sleep anywhere you might be seen. If your lack of shelter is too visible, you could get defined as vagrant, then taken to sleep in a place you are not allowed to leave.

You might think government agencies and private charities set up to "coddle" poor people are different about this, but most of them really aren't. Almost every charity and bureaucracy has its own special brand of invisibility to promote. Need help overcoming addiction? Learn how to pretend you've been instantly cured, because many drug treatment programs have zero tolerance policies. No relapses allowed, or you're back out on the street.

Even those who try to overcome being homeless entirely on their own, with no help from charities or the government, don't find much sympathy. Many employers won't accept job applications from anyone who can't give any address or telephone number. Opening a bank account can be difficult or impossible too.

Many homeless people have embarrassing mistakes on their permanent records. When people get desperate, trying to stop their slide down the slippery slope to the bottom, they can buy into crooked scams that trash their credit ratings. If addiction contributed to the downfall, your bonus can be a scary looking criminal record to make potential employers think twice.

On the off chance you're one of the very rare people and you really do choose to be homeless in a modern society, you still need to learn a new skill. You must accept being seen as a complete failure by everyone you meet, except maybe the ones who look past you and pretend you don't even exist.

It seems like almost none of this happens to people in a nomadic culture. The only similarity is, nomads don't settle down in one place.

I only know what I've read about this, but it seems to me that most nomadic people choose to be nomads. They live in communities that accept moving around as a normal, successful way of life. Usually it's a whole community that actually moves. You won't see any lone person or small family from a nomad culture wandering around aimlessly unless some huge disaster happens.

Most nomads never wander around randomly. Most move in a pattern and repeat the pattern every year, or every few years. Some move to give desert grasses time to recover, before they let their herds of sheep or camels or yaks graze it down again. Some move to follow the migration of animals they hunt for food. None of these are people who see themselves as having no home. They see their home as so large that it takes years to move through every room.

I think about that more and more these days. We think we are so much more advanced than nomads. But we define our ideas of home and community so narrowly, almost anyone can become homeless with a run of enough bad luck. I wonder, what would it be like to live with ideas of home and community so vast that it's almost impossible to become homeless?

Like most "civilized" people, I was brought up to think nomadic people resisted efforts to educate and civilize them because they were too primitive and ignorant to recognize what was best for them. I don't think that way now.

I'm not saying we should all go back to making our living like nomads. The scientists are probably right, this planet probably has too many of us now for that to work. We can't all go back to living that way. But maybe the nomads remember some things we need to learn over again, to feel truly alive and at home in this world.