Jump directly to the Content
Image: Illustration by Nicole Xu

Trauma-Informed Care Is the Key to Ending Homelessness.

A model for hope and healing.

Trauma-Informed Care Is the Key to Ending Homelessness.

A model for hope and healing.

Michelle is a 60-year-old mother of four with nine grandchildren who is trying her best to find stable housing. For several years, Michelle has slept where she can–in abandoned buildings, at the airport, and in shelters. She wants more than anything to have a place where her grandkids can stay while enjoying quality time with their grandma. She wants stability and safety.

For some, homelessness begins with a tipping point of crisis–people are forced out of housing by an inflated bill, a car accident, or unexpected job loss. But for others, these temporary setbacks are part of an ongoing struggle to manage pain and suffering.

Michelle is like so many of our unhoused neighbors. Before she can secure housing, she needs support to address her underlying trauma caused by childhood adversity and the mental health obstacles she has faced for her entire adolescent and adult life. Michelle’s early life was fraught with pain, defined by a suicide attempt at 14 and subsequent depression and anxiety diagnoses. At 40, a sexual assault triggered trauma responses that nearly consumed her, leaving her unable to cope with the pressures of living.

Nearly 40 percent of those experiencing homelessness have suffered from family conflict or abuse by a partner. Other contributing factors to homelessness include job loss, rising housing costs, injury, and addiction. Consider also the compounding traumas of mental illness and the psychological strain of someone’s basic needs of food, water, hygiene, and shelter going unmet while their anxiety and fear skyrocket.

These hardships, how an individual experiences them, and their lingering consequences contribute to complex trauma, which, when left unaddressed, has a rippling impact on the health of individuals and families.

Without intervention, the unhoused crisis can result in damaging, multigenerational cycles that define communities. However, when those in need are equipped with the skills to obtain employment and reestablish housing, more resources for healthcare, law enforcement, and public funds are available. That’s why tackling the complex issues of homelessness and mental illness is necessary both for the individuals suffering and for the surrounding community that supports them.

Cycle-Breaking Care

“When we think about mental health, we think about the mind and the way we think,” says Darrin Payne, a mental health counselor. “While that’s appropriate, we often overlook the necessary component of emotional health.”

When someone is experiencing trauma, their ability to reason is replaced with a subconscious fear response. Rather than reacting logically to their environment, they view everything as a threat to their safety and well-being.

That’s why trauma-informed care for those who are homeless is so essential, because it allows people to respond to their feelings rather than reacting with fear. This kind of care moves from asking “what’s wrong with you?” to “what happened to you?” as it considers and respects the various stressors each person has faced. Ultimately, trauma-informed care recognizes the profound, pervasive effects of trauma on both individuals and communities, and it aims to help those who are unhoused feel safe, informed, and empowered.

Addressing short-term symptoms, such as meals and temporary residence, is critical, but ultimately these efforts don't improve recidivism. Substantive and sustainable change takes place when the individual receives holistic trauma-informed care which addresses mental, emotional, and relational health.

Hope in Healing

A lack of robust mental health services presents one of the greatest barriers to trauma-informed care.

The majority of the unhoused (70 percent) experience mental illness, a shocking number when considering that figure for the general population is only 21 percent. That’s why organizations with programming to meet a wide variety of needs play a crucial role in addressing mental health crises.

Some experiencing homelessness may need medical care for physical ailments that negatively impact their mental health–for Michelle, this includes treatment for a stress-related stroke she had while living in a long-term shelter. Michelle also benefits from individual and group therapy, where she is learning how to heal by sharing her story. Some people may need a social worker or behavioral coach to provide support as they try to parent despite experiencing high levels of stress and instability. Still others may need the support of evidence-based addiction recovery programs.

All of this work must be done in an environment that meets the brain's foundational need for safety. Effective, catalytic care provides external supports for people in crisis, with the ultimate goal for individuals to develop coping mechanisms for their emotional dysregulation. As people are given access to these tools and healing, they are better equipped to exit homelessness and become contributing members of the community.

Sustainable Solutions

There are trauma-informed programs that are making measurable, tangible differences in the lives of those who are unhoused, and supporting these programs is essential for the health of individuals and communities. For more than 80 years, every person who enters the doors of Atlanta Mission is greeted by a team dedicated to comprehensive care. Client advocates, social workers, and mental health counselors are available to address physical, mental, emotional, vocational, and spiritual needs in a safe environment.

With a posture of humble service, Atlanta Mission provides care through a Christ-centered, trauma-informed lens. Whether clients need counseling, recovery programming, parenting support, or community connections, Atlanta Mission is committed to providing the resources and tools that are needed. Healing individuals and families is the first step in building strong communities.

To learn more about addressing mental illness through trauma-informed care among those experiencing homelessness, sign up for their newsletter.