Trauma-Informed Care: Building on our Commitment to Strengths-Based Approaches to Ending Homelessness

February 10, 2020

Our efforts to ensure that every individual and family has the safety and stability of home require a continued focus on aligning housing with services and supports that are tailored to each household’s unique strengths and needs. There is long-standing recognition that these services and supports must be designed to respond to the prevalent trauma among people who’ve experienced homelessness, and the ongoing trauma that people experiencing or at-risk of homelessness face daily. Trauma-informed care, or TIC, provides a framework for organizational and individual service delivery that honors and responds to that trauma.

This article is the first in a series of upcoming communications focused on effective implementation of trauma-informed care and its role in preventing and ending homelessness.

What We Mean When We Talk about Trauma

While many definitions of trauma have emerged over the last few decades, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, defines it as follows : “Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

Trauma can be experienced both individually and as part of a family, community, or larger social group. It can be passed down through generations and is exacerbated by historical and current structural and environmental factors that marginalize or oppress groups of people. Acknowledging and responding to trauma requires greater recognition of the impact of structural racism , and a commitment to both trauma-informed and anti-racist approaches to community wide and organizational service delivery.

Adopting a Trauma-Informed Approach: Key Principles

SAMHSA describes six key principles of a trauma-informed approach. While these principles apply to multiple types of systems and settings, we’ve adapted them here to the role of the homelessness service system:

  1. Safety . People experiencing homelessness and program staff feel physically and psychologically safe. Physical settings and interpersonal interactions should promote a sense of safety for every child, young person, family, Veteran, person living with a disability, or individual adult experiencing homelessness.
  2. Trustworthiness and Transparency . Homelessness service systems and programs should operate and make decisions in ways that are transparent to everyone, building and maintaining trust with people experiencing homelessness, staff, and other stakeholders.
  3. Peer Support . Peers are integral to establishing and maintaining safety and hope, building trust, enhancing collaboration, and using their lived expertise to help others with housing stability and other goals, like recovery and healing.
  4. Collaboration and Mutuality . Value is placed on relationship, partnership, and leveling power differences between staff and consumers to promote shared power and decision-making across the program. There is recognition that everyone has a role to play in advancing trauma-informed approaches.
  5. Empowerment, Voice, and Choice. The homelessness service system and organizations within it foster a belief in people’s resilience and the ability of individuals and communities to heal from trauma. People’s strengths and experiences are recognized, honored, and built upon. Consumers are supported in shared decision-making, choice, and goal-setting to determine their own housing and service needs.
  6. Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues. Homelessness services systems and programs actively identify and address inequities and biases caused or perpetuated by their service delivery models. They promote access to culturally and gender-responsive services, leverage the healing values of traditional cultural connections, adapt programs, policies, and procedures to the racial, ethnic, and cultural needs of consumers, and recognize and address the impacts of historical trauma.

To end homelessness, we must continuously assess our systems to ensure that we remain faithful to trauma-informed approaches that center individuals’ and families’ choices in how they engage in housing and services, the kinds of programs they participate in, and the services they access. And we must make sure that our leaders and staff have access to the comprehensive training and support they need to design and deploy systems and programs that are aligned with these principles.

We thank you for the work you have already undertaken to integrate these principles into your community efforts to end homelessness, and we look forward to more conversations with you in the coming months about how we can broaden and deepen the practice of using trauma-informed principles to promote housing stability.

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