Last month we hosted Becca Stevens, a speaker, social entrepreneur, author, priest, founder of non-profit justice initiatives and President of Thistle Farms. During our conversation, one of the topics we addressed was the role that trauma plays in homelessness. Trauma comes in many forms and, as Becca argued, the very experience of homelessness is traumatic, making everyone who has and is experiencing homelessness someone who is also dealing with trauma. Because trauma impacts everything from the decision-making process to the ability to regulate emotions to being able to maintain relationships, the way we address trauma in the homeless population is critical to being able to serve them well. The best way we can love those struggling with trauma is to practice trauma-informed care.
What is trauma?
Trauma results from exposure to an incident or series of events that are emotionally disturbing or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being (Trauma Informed Care). Trauma might occur from a rape, domestic abuse, a car accident, time spent serving in the military or at war, emotional abuse, poverty, racism, and many, many other sources. Trauma can occur at any age but in children it is especially impactful as they rarely have the capacity to absorb or process their experience.
There are also three distinct forms of trauma. Acute trauma arises from a single incident like a car accident. Chronic trauma happens from ongoing abusive environments like domestic abuse. Complex trauma happens from the exposure to varied and multiple traumatic events that are often invasive and interpersonal.
As Becca noted in our conversation, many of the homeless individuals we serve have experienced different kinds of trauma. Trauma is likely even one of the reasons they are experiencing homelessness, whether it was from fleeing domestic abuse or mental illness that stemmed from trauma. Trauma can also be a factor in keeping homeless individuals from achieving the kind of stability they need and desire, like finding and keeping a job. If we disregard this essential reality when we care for them, we ignore something that is actively shaping how they move through the world. Trauma-informed care begins here, acknowledging that those who have experienced trauma are struggling with it in a real way.
What impacts does trauma have on a person?
Trauma must be taken seriously, regardless of the kind someone may be experiencing. Trauma increases the likelihood of chronic health issues, high risk behaviors, the use of drugs and alcoholism, and suicidal ideation and attempts. People who have experienced trauma tend to adapt coping mechanisms in order to survive or deal with the trauma. These coping mechanisms often involve maladaptive behaviors, like unhealthy eating, drug and alcohol use. They also contribute to anxiety, depression, and social isolation.
But trauma also deeply affects how the individual experiences and relates to the world and the people in it. Relationships can become a source of anxiety, fear, and distrust and the person who has experienced trauma often experiences heightened emotions in relationships that can lead to shame, anger, or numbing.
When considering the homeless population, it quickly becomes clear that trauma can lead to many of the ongoing struggles for homeless people. This is why it is so essential that caregivers and volunteers are aware of what trauma looks like and how it impacts a person so that we are able to see the whole person and not just symptoms or behaviors they exhibit that are confusing to us. Trauma-informed care equips caregivers to holistically see people beyond where they are today.
The science of trauma
Trauma also directly impacts the individual’s brain and body, making the effects of a single incident lasting and ingrained in their bodies’ memory. For children, the first years of life are critical for brain development making any exposure to trauma particularly damaging as it directly impacts cognitive development and functioning. As these children mature into adults, the imprint of trauma stays with them, wiring their brains differently—living in hypervigilance and struggling to respond to triggering events in logical and emotionally regulated ways. Adult trauma survivors often struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues which can lead to difficulty in maintaining regular jobs, healthy relationships, and healthy lifestyles.
What is trauma-informed care?
Now that we understand trauma, we can dive in deeper to what we discussed with Becca in our interview: the role of trauma-informed care as we serve homeless individuals. Trauma-informed care asks the question “What happened to you?” rather than “What is wrong with you?” (Trauma Informed Care). This change in posture towards someone you are trying to serve helps the care provider to have a bigger picture than what they see before them.
As we just explored, trauma is a far-reaching, long-term impacting, and body-changing experience. When someone has experienced trauma and never received care or counseling for that trauma, they will likely have adopted maladaptive coping strategies in attempts to care for themselves and survive. When we begin to see the whole story of an individual, we are able to have deeper compassion, empathy, and ultimately serve them better because we understand them.
Trauma-informed care aims to recognize the extent of trauma and understand how those struggling with trauma can recover. It equips workers to recognize the symptoms and signs of trauma in individuals they are serving and be aware of the significant emotional and psychological toll that trauma can exact. Trauma-informed care actively takes information about trauma and integrates it into practices, policies, and procedures so that workers are able to avoid re-traumatizing others. Not surprisingly, teaching and equipping workers with trauma-informed care principles can actually bring about better treatment outcomes for those receiving it. However, many service systems disregard trauma as a factor for individuals, therefore failing to truly see them and meet their needs.
Why we need trauma-informed care for the homeless population
For homeless shelters and organizations that serve the homeless population, adopting trauma-informed care practices can literally change lives. So many of the individuals we meet will be struggling with trauma and its effects. We can only break the spiraling cycle of trauma by truly knowing individuals – understanding the source of trauma and its impact before making assumptions, so we can provide the help they truly need. May we strive daily to serve our brothers and sisters better so that they flourish.