Homelessness Causes a Lifetime of Trauma

homeless people and trauma

Finding and connecting with homeless people, or formerly homeless people, has become such a valuable, and oftentimes, cathartic experience for me. Discussions about homelessness happening in the media are largely different from those happening between individuals with lived experience. I don’t connect to the media stories very much, and I know a lot of homeless people don’t either.

I often see formerly homeless people portrayed in feel-good stories. In very special cases, a homeless person or family survive homelessness and thrive in their new life with no lingering psychological pain. Truthfully, I’m sure they do live with some level of psychological pain, it’s just not mentioned. And, although these stories may be designed in such a way to inspire hope and a will to give and support homeless services, they can also be very misleading. Stories that describe the savior-complex of homeless service providers, which paint a pretty picture of recovery, are often very far from reality.

Instead, the reality is oftentimes a lifetime of trauma. Yet, we don’t talk very much about homelessness as a cause (not a result) of trauma or mental illness.

In the study, Homelessness as Psychology Trauma: Broadening Perspectives, authors Lisa Goodman, Leonard Saxe, and Mary Harvey argue that “homelessness is itself a risk factor for emotional disorder,” and that “psychologists can play an important role in addressing the psychological consequences of homelessness, regardless of their present or absence of prior mental health difficulties.”

In essence, it is clear homelessness is a traumatic event.

Therefore, doesn’t it make sense for mental health to be a priority when addressing homeless issues? Furthermore, the article elaborates that “Trauma theory and research may provide a useful lens through which to view and understand the experience of homelessness. First, the event of becoming homeless, of losing one’s home, neighbors, routines, accustomed social roles, and possibly even family members, may itself produce symptoms of psychological trauma in some victims. Typically, the transition from being housed to being homeless lasts days, weeks, months, or even longer.”

Not only does the process of becoming homelessness produce symptoms of psychological trauma, but “the ongoing condition of homelessness … may undermine and finally erode coping capabilities.”

Like many homeless and formerly homeless people, I share my experiences of homelessness on social media. I use multiple social media platforms to connect with people with lived experience of homelessness. Although our voices are not as loud as those in the media or within the homeless sector, they are the most real and the most accurate. Most importantly, we are able to build connections with each other and therefore help each other heal from our experiences.

Recently, I connected with another formerly homeless woman on Pillowfort by the name of Kamikaze Kumquat.

She expressed fear and anxiety with sharing her true identity, but invited others to read her blog, anyway. Since purchasing a beta key for Pillowfort earlier this year, I’ve written extensively about my recovery process. Kamikaze has generously engaged with me on topics of homelessness. Through sharing my story, I’ve been able to connect with someone who is also formerly homeless and who I can deeply relate to. Not only that, but our discussions have greatly helped me unravel my own experiences.

Earlier this month, she shared with me how much homelessness has impacted her mental and emotional health:

“It changes you. Homelessness is traumatizing. When you’re homeless, even living in a car, you exist in a constant state of paranoia and fear for your personal safety. Every time you close your eyes, you have to wonder if that is the night you won’t survive. If you are lucky enough to manage to escape the prison of homelessness, you are never the same again.

“You never lose the paranoia that’s waiting for you in a phone call, or in a catastrophe, or at the hands of rich people wanting to get richer. You’re always half-crazed because of it. You never lose the fear, or the nightmares, or the awful truth that there is a part of you that is dead inside because you have been to hell and lost a part of your soul there. If you already have a mental illness, you’ll be lucky if you’re functional afterwards. On most days, I am not.”

Most of these words hold true for me, for Kumquat, and for many other homeless and formerly homeless people.

In fact, the memories of homelessness follow us like a dark cloud, haunting us, for years. We’re never able to break away from survival mode. And because of this, we never truly embrace life as it was before homelessness happened.

Today, both my husband and I have PTSD. For both of us, homelessness is a big factor in our struggle with mental and emotional health. From homelessness came terror, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks and bad memories, crying fits, full-body physical pain, insomnia, nightmares, and depressive episodes.

In many ways, homelessness has added another layer, more complications, more complexities, to the nature of our brains. It affects how we react and interact with the world around us. We are both crippled by a fear of returning to this very dark moment in our lives. And this fear changes the way we live today.

Every choice we’ve made after homelessness gets tied back to these traumatic events. Every dollar spent is a dollar closer to a catastrophe. When I go grocery shopping, or take a sick day, as rent day approaches, we’re pulled from this rather safe and secure reality, and the sky goes dark again, and we think, is this it? Is this the moment it all comes crumbling down again?

And, in these realities, we’re faced with a neglect of focus and attention to poverty trauma and how homelessness causes mental illness. We desperately need more awareness and more support in this area of homeless services. But first we need to acknowledge the very real and very painful, lifelong effects of homelessness. There’s more work that needs to be done after a roof returns to the picture.

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Jocelyn Figueroa


Jocelyn Figueroa studied Creative Non-Fiction at The New School and is a blogger and freelance writer based out of New York City. Formerly homeless, she launched her own blog discussing shelter life in New York City. Today, Jocelyn is on a mission to build connections through storytelling and creative writing. Check out her book about homelessness at https://ko-fi.com/scartissueproject

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