By Sylvia Deyo
The National Coalition for the Homeless and the Congressional Homelessness Caucus recently hosted a briefing on Women and Trauma-Informed Care. The panel discussed the trauma of homelessness and the lack of aid and services available to homeless mothers and families in addressing these traumatic experiences.
The presenters stated that studies show that 93% of homeless mothers have experienced trauma in their lives, impeding their ability to provide a stable home, regardless of the housing services they receive. Additionally, over half of all homeless children are under the age of six and are traumatized by their homeless situation during a critical development period. The panel emphasized that in addition to housing assistance, trauma-informed care at an organizational level is essential for the well-being of these families. Trauma-informed care teaches service providers to notice and understand the impact of trauma on their clients as opposed to reacting confrontationally to problem behaviors.
The panelists included Cheryl Sharp Senior Advisor of Trauma-Informed Services at the National Council for Behavioral Health, Barbara Anderson Executive Director of Haven House Services, Jennifer Perlman Coordinator of Trauma Informed Care at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, and Leah Harris Trauma Informed Care Specialist at the National Association for State Mental Health Program Directors. Carmela DeCandia, the Director of Child and Family Initiatives at the Center for Social Innovation, moderated the discussion.
In addition to discussing the merits of trauma-informed care, the panel debunked common misconceptions about homeless people and the causes of their homelessness. Most of the American population generally attributes homelessness to laziness or addiction, but an often ignored factor is previous trauma or abuse. Jennifer Perlman spoke about Toxic Childhood Stress and the resulting dissociation in concealing trauma as a key cause for addiction and behavioral problems. All panelists emphasized the need for services that help people understand how these traumatic histories have affected their present situations. In order to address the trauma, care must focus on overall physical and psychological safety, the availability of choice and treatment in the decisions of the clients, and the avoidance of confrontational approaches to healing.
Cheryl Sharp stated that “stressed brains don’t learn,” when explaining the importance of stability and support in the health of children experiencing homelessness.
Leah Harris spoke further about policy steps that need to be taken in order to begin instituting widespread trauma-informed care in homeless services. She cited King County’s policy of reallocating funds from closing prisons to early intervention programs in schools. This program was successful because it allowed for early intervention in young children to address the negative social determinants of health that come with trauma and homelessness. The panel closed on the call to action of the young generation of advocates and Congressional staff to implement these programs because America “created homelessness through poor domestic policy,” and it is our job to end it.
Sylvia Deyo, a native to the Washington, DC, area, is NLIHC’s Field Intern. She attends Macalester College in Minnesota where her major is International Studies. She plans to continue her housing policy education in the next three years of college.