The Trauma Of…Homelessness

Members of the Greater Lowell Trauma Advisory Group created this summary sheet, based on a roundtable discussion held on September 25, 2012 in Lowell, Massachusetts.  The purpose of the event was to educate one another through discussion and sharing, so that we may better understand the connection between trauma and homelessness. Our goal was not to develop strategies to “fix the problem” but, rather, to raise awareness among professionals about the many layers of trauma and to develop ideas to support them. A total of 22 professionals and consumers participated in this event. What follows is a summary of our discussion. 


  • According to the National Center on Family Homelessness (2010), 1.6 million children in the U.S. (or 1 out of every 45 children) become homeless each year. This equates to more than 30,000 children each week and 4,400 children each day.
  • Eighty-four percent (84%) of homeless families are female-headed and over 50% of all homeless mothers do not have a high school diploma. The median wage needed to afford a 2-bedroom apartment is more than twice the minimum wage.
  • According to HUD data (2010), there was a 3.6% increase in homeless families in the U.S. (approximately 19,000 documented new homeless families that year). A total of 2.41% of families in Massachusetts were homeless in 2010.
  • In Lowell, MA, the homeless population increased thirty-six percent (36%) from 2009-2010. The current Section 8 housing waitlist is 8-10 years long.

How are homelessness and trauma related?

Participants concluded that homelessness is linked to trauma through loss—the loss of not only a physical home, but also the loss of connection to a person’s identify, support system, friends, rituals and traditions, and privacy. This loss can lead to re-traumatization, shame, and depression, along with a variety of mental health issues. Homeless individuals often struggle to find “a safe place,” to be able to trust others, and rebuild their foundation.

Adults/Families: uncertainty of not knowing where they will live; lack of trust in others; energy and time goes into meeting basic needs (protecting oneself, one’s family, and one’s belongings), which sometimes makes it difficult for parents to meet the emotional needs of their children.

One of the biggest causes of homelessness is violence. Multiple types of violence and trauma often precede homelessness. For example, stress in the family can lead to substance abuse and fighting, which leads to domestic violence. Children witness the violence and are often abused or neglected by caregivers, and then the family becomes homeless.

Children: often have learning problems; they are not invested in school because “they might have to move again;” children become anxious or withdrawn and try to protect themselves from losing another connection; children also have developmental delays and are four times more likely to become physically sick as compared to children who are not homeless.

What we are most often seeing in our work with these consumers

Adults: Young women (ages 18-24 years) coming into shelters and having a relationship with a male who gets them involved in prostitution; contraction of Hepatitis C.

Families: Homelessness due to unemployment; working poor who have an emergency (e.g., illness) and end up homeless; immigrant population-status determines services they can receive (including housing), and linguistic and cultural barriers.           

Children: Babies born addicted; young adults/teens who are kicked out of their parents’ homes because they are pregnant or GLBT; lack of stability and trauma passed down from the previous generation, so they “never feel safe,” which leads to mental health problems; can’t focus on their education/learning because they are in “survival mode”—leads to acting out behaviors in school.

Challenges We Face

  • Restrictions/lack of access to medical care, transportation, childcare waitlists, and the lack of affordable housing.
  • Families living in hotels for long periods of time, which leads to a lack of privacy, blurred boundaries between parents and children, and nutritional problems. Families split up due to shelter regulations (e.g., do not allow males in the shelter).
  • Many families become homeless due to domestic violence, but there are not enough of these types of shelters. “Sometimes being able to close the door doesn’t mean that you feel safe.”
  • The stigma of homelessness (“It’s your fault you are homeless.”)
  • Homeless consumers who abuse substances (what do you address first?)