Trauma and isolation: Solving houselessness is a community issue

June 2021 Posted in Community, People, Your Health

By Melissa Wagoner

Trauma is the one-word answer both Sarah White, program director and case manager at Sheltering Silverton, and Sarah Case, a licensed professional counselor, give when asked to describe a prevalent narrative within unhoused populations.

“The vast majority of people we serve are survivors of trauma, often complex trauma experienced over their lifetimes,” White explained. “We hear from folks who have experienced a lifetime of abuse. Most of the women we serve are survivors of sexual abuse/assault and interpersonal violence… We hear from individuals who were sexually and physically abused by family members and who were first offered drugs by relatives as early as 12 or 13 years old. We meet people who have lost spouses, parents or children. These stories will break your heart and make it very clear that trauma is a unifying factor among people who experience homelessness.”

It can also be a precipitating reason people lose access to shelter in the first place because trauma is inherently isolating – breaking down even those support systems which were once strong.

“I’ve had a whole lot of exposure to folks who have a lot of barriers to being housed and to stability,” Case said of her own experience, both as a volunteer and professionally, working with the unhoused.

“When I think about homelessness I think about ACEs [adverse childhood experiences] and I think about trauma and dissociation and barriers. Because homelessness is so much a problem of social isolation.”

That social isolation can come in many forms. Some as seemingly simple as the threat of eviction or displacement, the loss of services like water and electricity or an unexpected medical expense.

“The stress… is extremely hard on people,” White explained. “Living with chronic stress decreases an individual’s capacity for clear decision making, taxes relationships and makes it hard for people to communicate their needs.”

In short, it can break down that social infrastructure so vital in getting help during difficult times.

“All of that struggle leaves people in a place where they don’t have the kinds of relationships that are sturdy enough to call upon when they lose a job,” Case gave as an example.

But the solution is not as simple as the provision of resources through food pantries, utility assistance programs
or low-cost housing – a common misconception. Finding these resources and navigating the inherent bureaucracy can be all but impossible for those struggling with language, educational or mental health barriers.

“[A]ccessing those resources can be complicated and overwhelming for people living in crisis,” White confirmed.

It also does nothing to address those underlying issues – especially in the case of mental health and trauma – two issues that struggle to get the attention they deserve.

“We talk about class and racial and gender privilege but… the lack of trauma is a privilege,” Case pointed out. “That’s why it’s so hard to sit with the bootstrap mentality. The bootstrap mentality excludes the field of neurobiology that tells us the way our brains are, shapes our relationships with others.”

The first step is acknowledgment that lived-experience affects the needs of each individual, and to accommodate for that on a community level.

“We can heal from it,” Case confirmed. “It isn’t a final verdict. But we have to pay attention to this and honor that there are people around us – in our community – whose brains were never wired for safety and trust. And that can be a huge barrier.”

The next step is translating this new awareness into action.

“It’s so important to remember the hardest moments in our own lives and then imagine what it would have been like to go through them alone,” White suggested.

“We have the opportunity to be that person for someone else. That can be as simple as offering someone warmth and grace when they’re going through a hard time in public. It can look like helping someone find important services, or buying them a cup of coffee or offering a room in your home to someone you know who is experiencing a crisis.”

Because there is no quick-fix solution, rather there is a need for the creation of a community support network built – not upon the common hierarchical approach – but upon understanding and compassion.

“My heart grieves for a society in which some people believe that [homelessness] is their best option… that is a sobering reality of the American dream,” Case said. Asking, “Haven’t we co-created that truth? And then, haven’t we co-created the need to create a solution?”

And now, as more community members than ever before face job loss and the possibility of eviction due to the ongoing pandemic, is the time to start.

“A formal eviction on someone’s record creates significant barriers to future housing, almost as much as a criminal record,” White said.

“We are working with at least one household that has the resources to pay for housing but because of an eviction history, cannot find anyone to rent to them. This is why we work hard to prevent folks from getting to that point.”

And when they do reach that point, mental health and relationships – even for those who have never before experienced difficulty in these areas – can become strained.

“As you can imagine, the stress and anxiety someone would experience in that situation is tremendous,” White said.

That stress can be widespread, too, affecting whole families – including children – and in some cases even entire communities, destabilizing them to the point of collapse.

“If your extended family and community is also living in poverty, this creates ripples…” White said. “Often we see folks who fall into homelessness who cannot lean on family members because they are precariously housed themselves. To avoid creating anxiety for other family members, some will hide their economic situation… This can lead to anxiety and depression. Individuals with serious underlying mental health challenges are likely to see those illnesses exacerbated by the stress of homelessness or displacement.”

It’s a pandemic on top of a pandemic. And it has the potential to carry on for generations. Which is why funding and widespread access to the mental health services that can address this secondary problem is necessary when addressing the current economic crisis, the professionals maintain.

“We lack a comprehensive continuum of care for individuals experiencing a psychiatric crisis or chronic mental illness,” White said. Adding that this is especially true for those people who are unhoused.

“Safe housing and shelter are vital parts of that continuum. It can be a challenge to get someone help if they are not identified as being a danger to themselves or others. That’s a very high threshold for getting someone the crisis services they often need.”

Case agreed, “I think that our communities often prioritize acute mental health crisis intervention but what we don’t do a good job of is funding and creating systems that are accessible for problems that are less urgent. Our system is set up in such a way that it feels like you have to have a crisis to get help.”

Instead, those suffering are often left to help themselves in any way they can, which can often mean self-medication through the use of alcohol or drugs.

“There is an interplay of the way people self-medicate with street drugs to escape the anxiety and fears and depression,” Case pointed out. “If you had that much trauma, no access to services and you had access to street drugs, I don’t believe for a minute that most of us wouldn’t go down that road. So, there’s not a lot of room for judgment.”

Judgment can act as a barrier, creating a divide within the community.

“When we’re doing well, living in our house, it can be easy to ignore other people’s stress,” Case pointed out. “And we can feel so uncomfortable, that sometimes that discomfort pushes us into a blaming stance. But when we engage with a community issue as complex as homelessness, one of the best things we can bring to the table is humility and curiosity.”

And also, advocacy – in the form of programs like Sheltering Silverton, which strive to empower all members of the community regardless of race, gender or socio-economic status through a sharing of resources for things like fair treatment, social services and local housing solutions.

“The City of Silverton has an Affordable Housing Task Force that is working hard to identify targeted solutions to the lack of affordable housing in the city,” White said of one of the primary ways Silvertonians can actively support their unhoused neighbors.

“We need folks advocating at the County and State level as well. People can donate to organizations that provide rent assistance and help with utility payments. Both SACA and Sheltering Silverton assist people who are struggling to pay these bills.

“We also hope to build relationships with property managers and landlords who will work with people who might not have enough income to cover three times the cost of rent, or who have an eviction history or past criminal history. We need compassionate community responses that fill the gap for people who do experience a temporary loss of housing through shelter and other supports.”

Because, as Sheltering Silverton’s website states, each community is responsible for the care of all of its members.

“We’ve all needed someone to show up for us in this way,” White ventured, adding that this, above all else, is the tenet upon which Sheltering Silverton stands. “We treat everyone we meet as if they’re our brother or sister, we believe the best in folks, and walk beside them when they need support.”

For more information about the services Sheltering Silverton offers, or to volunteer, visit www.shelteringsilverton.org.

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