The connection between poverty and homelessness is obvious. People do not choose to be homeless when they can afford housing. But what, exactly, leads to the kind of desperate poverty that results in homelessness?
It’s often blamed on substance abuse, mental illness, criminal behavior, or other personal problems or characteristics. However, many people struggle with one, or all three, of these problems and never become homeless.
The reason for this lies in how we start in life—our families and circumstances—not our choices.
Problems like poverty are often generational, meaning they get passed down from parent to child. Homelessness doesn’t come from how a child is raised—although it may come from a parent’s ability to parent well.
It’s actually about the resources or protective factors people start with in life. These protective factors make all the difference when hard times come along. They’re important enough to decide whether someone can bounce back after a setback or become homeless.
Whether or not someone has these things is a matter of luck, not choice. Not only are people who don’t have these things more likely to become homeless, but they’re going to have a more challenging time getting out of it. And when they have children, these parents won’t have resources like money, stable housing, or a good name to protect them. The children will be on their own when they face hard times, and the problem becomes generational.
This is the same reason kids who grow up in the foster care system become homeless. It’s why we see so many people with disabilities on the streets and hear about so many homeless veterans. The lack of resources in these cases is evident because it’s visible. We need to remember that even for homeless people without a blatant case of bad luck, there are generational factors at work preventing them from being able to pull themselves up.
Even substance abuse, which many argue is a matter of personal character, is influenced by factors outside an individual’s control. Proclivity to substance abuse is hereditary, just like mental health conditions can be. You can be genetically predisposed to drug abuse, making it challenging to avoid developing a substance use disorder and much harder to avoid relapse when recovering from one.
The presence or absence of trauma also plays a significant role in generational homelessness. Exposure to trauma is a significant risk factor for homelessness. On the other hand, being protected from trauma, or having strong supports to help children process and heal from trauma, are major protective factors.
The problem is, poverty and homelessness greatly increase the likelihood kids will experience trauma. There’s an especially strong link between chronic homelessness, which persists over a long period of time, and trauma.
Trauma is a devastating risk factor because it leads to higher rates of mental health disorders and behavior problems. In the worst cases, children develop post-traumatic stress disorder, which can become a risk factor for homelessness if left untreated. Other conditions and symptoms linked to trauma include:
Kids with trauma are more likely to become truant, expelled from school, rejected by people who are supposed to be their support system, and more. They’re less likely to go to college or get good jobs. They’ll have fewer healthy coping skills and may turn to alcohol or drugs to cope with problems. Ultimately, they’ll be more likely to suffer from poverty and become homeless.
Trauma can even change brain chemistry. A person’s fight-or-flight response can become more sensitive after experiencing trauma, making everyday events trigger the same cortisol and adrenaline release in the brain. This means the fight-or-flight response is activated more easily, creating enormous anxiety. Recent research even suggests the effects of trauma on a person’s genes can be passed from one generation to the next.
The good news is, what we do to help homeless people today can have positive outcomes generations down the road. We must learn to view investment in our communities as homeless prevention. By investing in mental health and substance abuse programs, we aren’t just treating symptoms of homelessness—we’re investing in prevention as well.
Mental health and substance abuse among homeless people sometimes get overlooked simply because basic needs like food and shelter take priority. However, one needs to heal from trauma before learning to meet their own needs. Without emotional healing, that person will always feel they’re in danger. They cannot focus on prevention without learning to tell the difference between a real versus perceived threat.
Understanding more about generational trauma also helps us be more compassionate. It’s easy to look down our noses at homeless people and assume their actions caused their position. However, in nearly every case, there were much more complex factors at work that resulted in the picture before you. Many of those factors were outside that person’s control.
To advocate for a future in which homeless people can truly decide their future, write to your legislators. Ask them for better programs targeted to generational homelessness, including therapeutic services and family-focused programs. Share this message far and wide to build better awareness of what homelessness is really about.
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