Family Homelessness: A Gateway to Generational Trauma

family homelessness

© Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal/ZUMA Wire

Some people see homelessness as an experience, an adverse event that takes place in the shadows to somebody other than them. Other people see homelessness as a state, transient like the people experiencing it. It’s a condition that can be changed through effort and action or if one simply tries hard enough.

In reality, neither of these definitions is correct. Both downplay the condition severely, out of ignorance, malice, or a little of both.

If you want to know what homelessness is, your best bet is to ask a homeless person or someone previously homeless. If you listen long enough, you will find that homelessness is a series of unique stories strung together by one common theme: the trauma of not having a home. 

Subsectors of homelessness can exhibit unique traumas. For example, the trauma of living unsheltered could pose very different issues than the trauma of residing on your best friend’s sofa. For homeless families, generational trauma is a factor that we must consider.

Trauma from Homelessness: A Breakdown of Events

In 2005, The National Child Traumatic Stress Network released a detailed study conducted by several mental health professionals and funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The research provided an in-depth look at how homelessness causes trauma in children and adversely affects family life. Multiple studies since then have served to support similar findings.

Homelessness, at its root, is statistically proven to erode relationships starting with the immediate family and branching out into the broader scope of society. When an individual first becomes homeless, their sense of identity is stripped. This gives way to deep-seated emotional pain, which can show itself in the form of:

  • Depression
  • Isolation
  • Mistrust
  • PTSD
  • Physical illness
  • Conflict and strife

The above-listed conditions are exacerbated further in situations of family homelessness wherein children, some as young as newborn babies, are viciously thrust into a situation most adults cannot even bear. Children whose parents fall into homelessness exhibit statistically negative traits. When compared to housed children, unhoused children are:

  • Twice as likely to experience hunger
  • Twice as likely to repeat a grade
  • Four times as likely to develop asthma
  • Twice as likely to become physically ill
  • And by eight years of age, one-third of unhoused children will be diagnosed with a severe psychological disability

Generational Trauma is Often a Predicating Factor of Homelessness

When families are thrust into homelessness, this is often the result of an inability to afford their homes. Many homeless children were already grappling with poverty long before they wound up on the streets or in the shelter system.

Other traumatizing events passed down through the experiences of parents or guardians that can also cause homelessness include:

  • Domestic violence
  • Death of a loved one
  • Single parenthood
  • Fractured social supports
  • Substance abuse disorders
  • Mental health issues

This means that a youth experiencing family homelessness has likely already been subject to violent assaults in the home, social isolation, crippling poverty, and/or other disquieting events.

Trauma Brought on by the Homeless Experience

Families who become homeless are often separated either at the doorsteps of friends and family members, in the hallways of a shelter system, or through the emotional pain of the experience itself, placing an invisible barrier between parent and child. The child might feel abandoned or unprotected. The parent will then feel helpless to defend them against the unfavorable condition.

As time goes on, parent and child will navigate a harsh reality, one where:

  • School and work schedules are altered
  • Extracurricular activities are put on hold
  • Possessions are lost forever
  • Pets may be removed or given to another family
  • Privacy is limited
  • The sense of security is difficult or even impossible to restore

The Cycle Repeats Itself

When families are forced into homelessness, two or three generations are exposed to the same trauma, increasing the chances that the adverse effects will trickle down again. It will affect both young and old, simultaneously disrupting the present and the future.

Children exposed to instability at home or in school are already disadvantaged regarding parenting and securing housing in the future. The level of distrust that homelessness instills in a person can lead to problems with trusting or obeying authority figures in adulthood, which can cause further isolation that makes it difficult to:

  • Secure housing
  • Maintain employment
  • Develop communal relationships

Several of the factors mentioned above seriously increase the risk of future homelessness. Low income, low education, previous trauma, exposure to drugs, alcohol, and violence, difficulty maintaining employment, and emotional disabilities increase the likelihood of future homelessness. Henceforth, children who experience family homelessness have a statistically higher likelihood of repeating the pattern.

Stop the Cycle Before it Starts. Talk to Your Representatives About Family Homelessness

Family homelessness continues to increase dramatically. It’s time to end the vicious cycle of generational trauma once and for all. Contact your representatives. Tell them you believe housing should be legislated as a human right.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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