At its core, the term “homeless” denotes living on the streets, bereft of a place to call home. Yet the more personalized and internalized 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 behavior, 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 counsellng psychologist working in private practice, I frequently observe the impact of this kind of trauma on the mental and emotional state of clients with whom I work.
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 on-going 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.
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.
Homeless teen photo available from Shutterstock