Most of the homeless people I served had experienced significant amounts of trauma, and I don’t mean physical injury. I’m talking about deeply distressing and disturbing experiences in life.
You’ve probably seen it. Someone standing on a corner asking for money, tents crowding sidewalks, or maybe someone behaving unpredictably, talking to themselves, or shouting at bystanders. Whatever your experience has been, one thing is for sure: It made you feel something.
After working in homeless shelters, doing outreach, and managing a transitional home for homeless youth, I have noticed many Seattleites are uncomfortable with homelessness. What they may not realize is that of the people I served, many were eager for an opportunity to improve their situation, their resilience was nothing short of astonishing, and most had pretty messed up childhoods that boiled over into adulthood.
I enrolled in the University of Washington seeking a master’s degree in public health with one overriding question: How will Seattle solve its growing homelessness crisis? It’s clear there’s no easy fix, but I’m certain if we want to have thoughtful conversations about the issue, we need to have a basic understanding of what’s keeping people on the streets.
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It wasn’t long before I realized that most people I served had experienced significant amounts of trauma, and I don’t mean physical injury. I’m talking about deeply distressing and disturbing experiences. Psychological and emotional trauma during childhood — abuse, neglect, molestation, rape, witnessing someone being injured or killed — are common themes in many people’s paths to homelessness. People struggling with chronic homelessness are more likely than people who experience one-time homelessness to have been abused during childhood. Many people who were maltreated continue to experience violence into adulthood and traumatic stress can lead to depression, substance abuse and other mental illness.
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Being homeless is a terribly traumatic experience, as well. Not knowing when your next meal is, battling harsh weather and having to constantly worry about getting beat up or robbed takes its toll. Traumatic stress can trap people in perpetual states of fight-or-flight, and while some people can recover quickly, others develop longer-lasting problems like post-traumatic stress disorder. Ultimately, traumatic stress makes it difficult for people experiencing homelessness to navigate the obstacles in overcoming homelessness, like maintaining steady work, housing and relationships.
We usually think about people’s material needs when wanting to help people out of homelessness, but organizations that specialize in fighting homelessness are recognizing the importance of addressing underlying trauma. The nonprofits I worked at, and many others like them, base their services around the fact most homeless people have experienced a traumatic event. Being considerate toward their traumatic history prevents re-traumatization, builds trust, and helps people move forward toward self-sufficiency. I think Seattleites could take a page out of this book.
When we see people living on the streets we might feel uncomfortable, sad, angry, scared, or guilty, and those feelings might cause us to shy away from or even ignore people experiencing homelessness. I realize not everyone is cut out to be a social worker, but I want to encourage you to try to replace feelings of discomfort with empathy and compassion. Being compassionate toward vulnerable people is hard work — I know because it burned me out. I could only listen to so many stories of rape, abuse, neglect, and racism. I could only help so many people through overdoses, mental breakdowns, and suicide attempts. But through it all, I learned I should never rush to judgment because what I see on the surface is merely a reflection of a person’s formative experiences.
So, when commuting to work, grocery shopping, or walking through the park, please know that the lives of our homeless brothers and sisters have been rough. Even a kind word, smile or friendly conversation goes a long way. Don’t be so quick to write people off, and if you are put into an uncomfortable situation, just try and be patient and understanding because that person has gone through more than you or I can imagine. Hopefully, if Seattle is considerate toward those less fortunate, we can come together as a community, meet them where they’re at, and make some real change.