What Does it Feel Like to be Homeless? And Does Homelessness Early in Life Cause Permanent Trauma?
For the majority of Australia’s population who, relative to many other nations, live comfortably buffered within their first world “bubble”, homelessness is not a situation or circumstance with which most would routinely expect to contend. Yet, for an increasing number of people in Australia, homelessness is a reality of day to day life, and unfortunately, it is also the reality for an ever increasing number of youths in our communities, who will experience homelessness, perhaps temporarily or over the longer term, as they move into their adult years.
It is a disturbing fact that young people are drastically over-represented within our homeless population. According to a recent Census estimate, 105,000 Australians were homeless, with 47% of this number under the age of 25, and those between 12 and 18 years of age constituting the largest homeless group (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012). Yet it seems even this figure is likely to have been underrepresented in the homeless data. It is often the case for many youths who are homeless or “couch surfing”, that their homelessness is often masked because their characteristics look no different to other young person who may be simply visiting with a friend on Census night (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012). For example, a “usual address” is often indicated for couch-surfers in the Census data, either because the young person doesn’t want to disclose to the people they are staying with that they are unable to go home, or the person completing the Census form assumes the young person staying with them will return to their home.
My own experience of homelessness as a teen was consistent with current anecdotal evidence in homelessness data, in that, my homeless “status” was not something I wanted anyone to know about. The indignity and uncertainty of couch surfing at friends’ homes, relying on the generosity of their families for weeks on end as I overstayed my welcome, was a source of shame that I avoided sharing with anyone, either then or even retrospectively. Indeed, the ongoing humiliation over a period of months, where I was relying on friends to negotiate with their parents to allow me to stay on, remains indelibly imprinted within my memory.
The statistics indicate some disturbing yet consistent trends in terms of causal factors that frequently contribute to youth homelessness. Sadly, for many young people who find themselves bereft of the safe refuge of home, homelessness is the unexpected outcome of intra-familial dysfunction, with family conflict and domestic violence reportedly the main cause of youth homelessness in Australia (MacKenzie and Chamberlain, 2003). Other causal factors include substance addiction, parental death, chronic unemployment, parental neglect, socio-economic hardship, mental health issues, and a myriad other adverse factors. Essentially, I think it is most often the case that teens find themselves homeless, or experience the absence of a family support system, predominantly because the resources available from within that family unit, emotional or otherwise, are inherently lacking or in short supply. Equally concerning is the finding that, without prompt intervention and housing support at a local level, homeless young people are evidenced to be more likely to transition over the longer term to chronic adult homelessness (MacKenzie and Chamberlain, 2003).
What is clear from the literature on this issue however is that homelessness should not be viewed merely in terms of an individual’s current living status, and certainly this issue should not be considered merely as symptomatic of a “bigger picture” which, on the face of it, may predominantly implicate the systemic housing shortage in our cities and local communities. Indeed, at the very heart of this issue is not just the practical consideration for the young person, of having no place to live. Personally speaking, homelessness is much more than being merely indicative of one’s residential status or living circumstances at a point in time. It is much more than this…
For a young person the impact of homelessness is more deeply etched, as it often leads to the shattering of one’s perception of family as a source of safety, security and love, and essentially the ripping away of what may or may not have been the illusion that that one has a place where one belongs in one’s world. The devastating realisation of the tenuousness of one’s day to day safety net (i.e. securing somewhere to stay), and the hurt and disappointment that accompanies the realisation that no one within one’s family is willing or able to reach out and offer support. If one’s own family and specifically, one’s caregivers, aren’t an available source of love, security and safety, where else is one likely to source these elements that are so vital to human belonging and secure connection…?
In terms of being homeless, the element that impacted most dramatically on me as a teen was the cold realisation that the only person I could truly depend on from that point was me. From this moment on, it was difficult to associate the concept of family with security or dependability. Unfortunately, that realisation triggered a profound shift in my ability to also trust others, even in relationships outside of the family unit. Although I did not realise it until much later in life, for me the experience of becoming homeless led to a subsequent loss of trust in the concept of family as the source of a stable foundation.
At its core, the term “homeless” denotes living on the streets, bereft of a place to call home. Yet the more personalised and internalised meaning of the term homeless can include a sense of ostracism from one’s family unit, community, and society as a whole, and the stigma associated with being cast out, isolated, vulnerable, worthless, and unwanted. Personally speaking, the emotional impact of this period in my life, which was pervaded by acute personal stress and instability, and compounded by the grief and hurt associated with losing one’s support system during a highly vulnerable stage of life, led to longer term emotional and psychological implications. Along with the indignity and sense of vulnerability associated with being homeless, one’s self-concept, which is still developing during the teen years, and one’s feelings of deservability and self-worth, take a serious battering.
Furthermore, as well as constituting a period of intense stress, for many young people the cold reality is that homelessness becomes a catalyst for further traumatic events. One cannot overlook the adverse outcomes and risk of complex trauma associated with the risk of flow-on repercussions and subsequent risks, which go hand in hand with homelessness for a vulnerable young person- substance abuse, sexual assault, criminal behaviour, teen pregnancy, and the list goes on. And unfortunately, the emotional and psychological damage caused by homelessness and its associated risks, has the potential to become a generational legacy, where the young person who develops into the adult does not possess, or have the opportunity to learn and develop, the emotional resources necessary to create his /her own stable and secure family unit. And thus the homelessness wound continues to impact on the adult and his/her offspring in the form of that emotional void that pervades one’s psyche- the void where family and personal connection should be.
In my opinion, as a psychologist and a person who has been homeless, regardless of age, homelessness is a status which becomes indelibly imprinted in some form within one’s psyche. One’s experiences and very real sense of vulnerability, especially as a young person devoid of a safe place to call home, has the potential to become a permanent state of consciousness. As a counselling psychologist working in private practice, I frequently observe the impact of this kind of trauma on the mental and emotional state of clients I work with. Those who have been homeless are unlikely to forget the overpowering sense of emptiness where family connectedness may have once resided. Where the absence of a stable and secure emotional “anchor” early in life, and the acute stress which results, invariably leads to a psychological and state that I term “survival mode”. This is a “hyper-aroused” physiological and psychological state that I consistently observe in clients who have experienced early life trauma. It can be likened to the type of hyper-arousal which is characteristic of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, and is just as difficult to “switch off” later when the actual stressors in one’s life have diminished. So essentially, regardless of his/her current circumstances, the person’s psyche becomes ineffective in manifesting, or accurately perceiving, a core sense of stability and security. As a result, there is a pervasive and persistent perception (either real or imagined) that one is struggling day to day, both in coping with ongoing life events, and in relation to maintaining some modicum of security and safety.
Indeed there is little doubt that homelessness is intensely traumatic…especially for a young person. Metaphorically speaking, I would liken the experience of homelessness to that of being swept up into a powerful wave that has built up over time, often along with multiple compounding, stressful currents in one’s life. This overpowering body of water takes hold of you and drags you unceremoniously down into the chaotic undertow and holds you down long enough for you to be completely disoriented, gasping for air, fearing for your very survival, and desperate for a lifeline. If you are lucky and resourceful you will find your way back up to the surface, but it is highly unlikely that you will forget the experience, or emerge from it emotionally and psychologically unscathed.
SAAP Government Data Collection. (2009). Homeless People in SAAP, SAAP National Data Collection Annual Report 2007-08.
Retrieved from: https://homelessnessclearinghouse.govspace.gov.au/about-homelessness/research-and-data-database/data-and-data-sets/saap/
Commonwealth of Australia (2008). The Road Home: A National Approach to Reducing Homelessness.
Retrieved from: https://www.dss.gov.au/our-responsibilities/housing-support/programmes-services/homelessness/the-road-home-the-australian-government-white-paper-on-homelessness
MacKenzie and Chamberlain, (2003). Homeless Careers: Pathways In and Out of Homelessness.
Retrieved from: http://trove.nla.gov.au/work/11852420?selectedversion=NBD27657894
Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2012). 4922.0 – Information Paper – A Statistical Definition of Homelessness.
Retrieved from: ttp://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4922.0main+features42012