No child should be without a home.
Physical, sexual and emotional abuses are commonplace among the homeless. Even when shelter can be found, traumatized consumers of public shelters need help to recover from trauma and acquire skills to place them in the world of work. Not only must their trauma be treated but skills must be enhanced in alignment with their basic aspirations for citizenship and human dignity. Feelings of isolation, disaffection, suspiciousness, and paranoia are common presentations. Homeless social service providers and teachers must be trained to recognize the near-and long-term effects of trauma on the homeless. Integrated social service efforts are required to treat the whole person and to integrate best practices in the treatment of trauma and abuse into program interventions. Elected leaders, homelessness advocates, social service providers, colleges and universities, the homeless, and philanthropic organizations must have conversations about the conditions under which this nation will affirm opportunity for the homeless. Erasing poverty and caring well for those who are poor, homeless, and have experienced toxic violence, trauma and abuse are matters we must face squarely as a nation.
The role of service providers would be complex enough if consumers of housing only presented with a need for shelter and an incident of trauma or abuse. Unfortunately, more than two-thirds present with both childhood and adult trauma—feelings of victimization are real and such feelings contribute to depression and the devaluation of lives. Abuses that occur in childhood induce shame and often are manifested in deviant practices in the victimized. Trust becomes a life-long issue and no place seems safe. The streets, parks and back alleys are also dangerous—uncertainty lurks. Looking for safety is at the root of the challenge. Where are safety and protection from abuse, insult, injury and trauma found? These are some of the very same questions that sharecroppers asked just over seven decades ago. Like most sharecroppers, the homeless lack sovereignty in their homes. In the sharecropper shanties there was constant vulnerability to sexual abuse, psychological trauma and marginalized citizenship. Like many of the homeless, sharecroppers lacked access to health care and they and their children were exposed to illiteracy and inopportunity. There the similarities end. Even though they worked from early morning until dawn; they still lacked financial resources and access to safe shelter, and protection from illiteracy, abuse and trauma. Unlike the homeless, as a class, the sharecroppers’ cheap labor helped produce the wealth of a region if not the wealth of the nation. In the sharecropping era, mothers of single headed households, moved from plantation to plantation to find a safe place for their sons and daughters—their infants, toddlers, and teens. They were running away from lawlessness and trauma toward citizenship and healing. Contemporary homelessness seems a bit more random. Veterans, the elderly, children, female and male adults, and whole families are at risk. Many of today’s homeless are also seeking equal protection from unlawful acts—acts of rape, neglect and abuse as well as post-traumatic stress from war, and civil strife. And all too often among the homeless, abuse and neglect originate in the home. Distancing oneself from kin is hard to do even when kin have perpetuated the abuses. It is particularly hard when no one believes that the abuse actually occurred and that it has occurred repetitively over the span of one’s childhood. The answer then as now is a place protected by law. The homeless need equal protection. Just as the poor rural sharecropper needed equal protection to recover from peasantry, the homeless need both access to safety and restoration of the skills needed to practice meaningful citizenship. In this case, they need an integrated network of support capable of co-leading and monitoring their restoration to functional citizenship and stabilization. Like the sharecropper, the homeless have been victimized. Most are not helpless victims without aspirations and the will to distance themselves from past neglect, lawlessness, abuse and trauma. Most seek to restore their mental and physical health. At a basic level, shelters and housing programs more generally must provide integrated social services and must continue to do so even when families are permanently placed. This is not currently how this sector operates and this situation cries out for practice and policy transformations. Handing a housing voucher over to a traumatized war veteran or to a child who has suffered chronic sexual or other abuse is to ignore the trauma and abuse. This approach perpetuates a cycle of abuse and trauma and of gains and relapses. Social service agencies must be adaptive in much the same way that victims of abuse and trauma must learn adaptive skills. How can social service providers help the traumatized homeless cope with life in an adaptive but healthy manner? Service providers become part of people’s lives at a very vulnerable time and severing this partnership too soon, relegating the partnership to a mere official role, or delegating it to others in the social network without proper follow-on, --are recipes for another disappointment, especially for emancipated minors, without any anchors or life-vests in their hands or hard-wired into their memories.
We need to apply these basic principles of recovery--- ensuring trust in the service provider network, developing and/or restoring a sense of agency and worth in clients, and nurturing healthy, adaptive practices---in the processes of case in-take, case analysis, temporary shelter living, and permanent shelter. Such a program needs development. Children who experience homelessness do not drop out of life. Many homeless parents attempt to keep their children in school. When trauma and abuse are both in evidence, the ability to cope with school as a member of a community is a challenge and an opportunity. What care must be taken to remove triggers and make school and shelters more hospitable to children and their parents? Social service providers and teachers must be advocates in advance for clients/consumers. Colleges and universities must train prospective early childhood, elementary, middle school, secondary, and special education teachers in a manner consistent with the affirmation of opportunity and equal protection for homeless children. Teachers and social service workers need a fair amount of psychotherapeutic training. At the very least both need to be sensitive to trauma and abuse and not participate in the re-victimization of people. Trauma education or wellness approaches need to be a formal part of training that staff and teachers undergo. Maxine Harris, Ellen Bassuk and others refer to this environment as not merely trauma–knowledgeable but trauma-informed (Harris, M. and Fallot, R. 2001; Harris, 2004; and Hopper, E., Bassuk, E., and Oliver, 2010). This is a paradigm shift and its implementation and performance require evaluation and assessment. This shift is needed as more and more homeless people—children and adults--experience toxic stress, which can lead to trauma (Shonkoff, 2000). Without protective relationships children and adults who have experienced toxic stress/trauma lose their capacity to adapt and function well. Importantly, roughly 15 to 30 percent of all adult women are themselves victims of abuse and trauma. Not only must social service providers and teachers be trauma-informed, housing programs must be trauma-informed at the level of placement and monitoring (Hopper, E., Bassuk, E., and Olivet, J., 2010). The continuum of housing services is impressive: Group homes with and without staff, shared apartments, single apartments, transitional apartments, and single family homes, are on the continuum. A network of providers is needed to insure that the homeless can exercise housing options and feel safe and protected as they do so. What kind of group intervention for homeless trauma survivors is available and what actually works?
Next-Generation Programs Today’s network providers routinely participate in a self-assessment process where questions are raised that could be used to maximize exits from homelessness for the chronically abused and traumatized. Six areas/domains might usefully constitute an actionable self-assessment: (1) service providers’ knowledge of the nature of trauma and abuse experienced by the homeless; (2) availability of housing options and integrated treatment programs for homeless families with histories of toxic abuse and trauma; (3) the curriculum and experiential learning of teachers of homeless children with trauma and abuse, and roles of teacher education programs in preparing teachers of homeless children; (4) the adaptability of adults and children in the pathway from shelters, abuse and trauma to permanent placement and recovery and reintegration; (5) the pace and quality of social services offered to the homeless; and (6) repeaters in the cycle of homelessness, trauma and abuse.
For just over a century Lesley University has pioneered in the area of teacher education and human services (www.Lelsey.edu/ Centennial: 1909-2009). Last year Lesley University developed the Child Homelessness in Massachusetts Initiative. The Initiative engages students, faculty and social service agencies in a conversation about best practices in ameliorating child homelessness and creates a series of experiential learning opportunities for prospective teachers, applied therapies, psychology, biology, child studies, and human services majors. Faculty in psychology, holistic psychology, expressive therapies and social work have been especially active in placing students and teaching courses that give students an intentional awareness of the literature on trauma and abuse, transformational program regimes in integrated treatment of homeless adults and children. The internship office at Lesley University has worked with social service agencies, foundations, and other organizations to create experiential learning opportunities for students in all majors. Applied real-world learning is a goal at Lesley. As in previous years, over the next five years these students will be placed in the network of providers and will have an opportunity to learn first-hand the conditions under which group intervention works, or does not work; the roles of service providers in deciding which housing arrangements are best for which clients; the relationship between direct child services providers and social service homeless providers. Their journals and observations will be shared in-house with mentor evaluators and mined for their heuristic value and next-generation best practices. Annually, they will share with the University community the artifacts of their work, depicted in a variety of forms ranging from art to traditional poster sessions and capstones. In phase two of the Lesley Child Homelessness Initiative we want to build more intentionally a wellness curriculum within holistic psychology, expressive therapies and human services that draws upon the work of Al Pesso. Founded five decades ago, the Pesso Boyden System Psychomotor (PBSP) is a mind and body therapy. In the next year Lesley University would like to produce a mind and body wellness track (or certificate program) within the above mentioned majors. This wellness track will blend PBSP and Reiki therapies. Students will have access to a track within a branch of majors as well as the possibility of earning a certificate in wellness. This curriculum and the varied partnerships it will spawn will enable Lesley undergraduate students to enter the field of human and social services already equipped with the knowledge, tools and sensibilities to lead in this sphere.
At the end of the third and fourth years of bachelor’s study students and faculty evaluators, and service network providers, could usefully synthesize their experiences and point to explicit policy advocacy areas as well as to ways of strengthening college and university curricula. A faculty study team could, in collaboration with network providers, lead a multi-year study on stabilization and use their work to inform best and next generation policies and practices in protecting the homeless and restoring their psycho-social and civic assets.
Director of the LA&PS Internship Office; Assistant Professor of Psychology
Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies; Professor of Political Science and Global Studies
Undergraduate Study Abroad
Foreign Languages at Lesley
News from 29 Mellen
Child Homelessness Initiative
College of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies
2011 Conference Presentations Archive
Dean Coleman's Interview with Laurie Schoen
Year One Inquiry
Year Two Inquiry
Reflections on World Homelessness
Partnerships in Policy / Advocacy
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