The psychiatric definition of “trauma” is “an event outside normal human experience.”
That seems to be an understatement. Consider the following:
- 90% of women who live in homeless shelters have experienced physical or sexual abuse
- An estimated 46% of homeless youth ran away from home to escape physical or sexual abuse
- 33% of homeless veterans served in a war zone
Trauma can overwhelm you with feelings of powerlessness. As one author wrote, it “tends to be sudden and overwhelming; it ‘owns’ you.” A serious traumatic experience can lead to both physical and mental health problems. People in treatment report feelings of shock, numbness, confusion, extreme anxiety and depression, just to name a few of the emotions that can shatter your world.
The link between traumatic experiences and homelessness seems intuitive. After hearing the personal stories of some homeless people I wonder how they can still put one foot in front of another, and yet somehow they find a way to survive. And even if this link does not seem so evident on its face, it has also been documented repeatedly.
If trauma can lead so often to homelessness, what about the trauma of homelessness itself? When they lose their home people lose much more than a place to sleep. They lose their sense of belonging in the community. They lose important possessions, including irreplacable pictures, letters and personal mementos. They lose the security of a door with a lock. Life on the street is filled with terror and with good reason. The murders of four homeless men in California permeated the news in late 2011.
Trauma and homelessness becomes a vicious cycle. The after effects of trauma can leave a person unable to cope, unable to work, unable to take care of themselves or their children. The resulting homelessness adds trauma on top of trauma.
How can our country let this injustice continue? There are many selfless, caring people working tirelessly to end it. But there are far too many who believe the homeless have the choice and ability to find and keep a home. Otherwise it means we have to accept we have failed to live up to our country’s ideal – that we are a land where there is equal opportunity for all. And that would just be un-American.