Why Trauma-Informed Housing Is Key to Solving Homelessness

“Housing First” initiatives can fall short if other resources aren't in place for individuals suffering from complex problems.
April 14, 2015 AT 9:00 AM
The Rene Cazenave building in San Francisco provides apartments for extremely low-income, previously homeless individuals. BRIDGE Housing
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

The reality of life is that everyone is a single traumatic event away from an existence they might never have imagined. On one hand, denial tells us that severe hard times or crisis will never happen to us. On the other, fear tells us it might.

Not so long ago, I took a road trip with two men who have lived out the effects of trauma on what had been well-ordered lives. We were traveling together to a conference in Nashville. I brought the perspective of city planner and mayor, but their experience was harder earned.

Our assignment was to talk about efforts in Chattanooga to end chronic homelessness and my traveling companions were to share their stories. They were interesting individuals who both looked old before their time -- worn and tired with craggy, lined faces and wrinkled, calloused hands. Both men came from middle-class backgrounds, or what might even be considered upper-middle class. One had been a mid-level manager and the other had owned an electrical supply business. Their histories were similar in that both had suffered a traumatic event: Their wives had died -- one due to a heart attack, the other in an automobile accident. From that point forward, their lives became unstable and they spiraled downward toward difficult circumstances and, eventually, homelessness.

The owner of the electrical supply business said he had sold his business and home after the death of his wife. Finding himself relatively wealthy and free to do pretty much whatever he wished, he had decided to travel. He had never been one for alcohol, but he began to drink periodically as he toured the country. Soon, the drinking began to take over and, before he realized it, he found himself out of money and out of options. He was homeless.

The other man suffered the same fate, though he followed a different path. Within relatively short order -- over a period of just a few months – both men went from successful middle class to drug and alcohol dependency and homelessness. The trigger was a traumatic event -- the death of a spouse and, as each told it, the loss of their closest companion and best friend.

In Chattanooga, our early efforts to aid individuals such as my traveling companions had focused on the "housing first" concept many cities have adopted. In a well-meaning but over-simplified fashion, we moved quickly to find public housing units or other acceptable accommodations for homeless individuals. This also required us to supply basic necessities such as furnishings. However, we soon learned that simply pushing homeless individuals into housing without supervision and other supportive services often had less than satisfactory results. Sometimes residents sold the furnishings or simply walked away. Clearly something more was needed.

We, like the people we sought to serve, needed a second chance.

In San Francisco, an organization called BRIDGE Housing has been working to help people create second chances for more than 30 years. Three decades later, BRIDGE is now responsible for over 21,000 homes in a city that has long faced a shortage of affordable housing. Its investment in affordable housing stock reflects BRIDGE’s fundamental premise that an apartment with affordable rent should be a stepping stone for advancement. In addition to low-cost housing, the organization provides targeted programs and services for residents of all ages to help them move toward lifelong success.

The model is documented in the white paper "Trauma-Informed Community Building,” which details how BRIDGE is engaging residents at Potrero Hill Terrace and Annex, a large-scale public housing development in the heart of San Francisco. The paper focuses on the cumulative impact of stress, violence and poverty. It recommends that community developers working with clients who have experienced high levels of stress or other trauma should take a slow approach and help individuals build relationships and a capacity to embrace change in addition to providing job skills training and other traditional programs.

The four underlying principles of the Trauma-Informed Community Building model are:

  • Do No Harm: Be aware of past and current trauma and promote activities, programs and services that avoid re-traumatizing individuals and the community.
  • Acceptance: Meet residents (clients) where they are. Accept the realities of the community conditions and set expectations accordingly.
  • Community Empowerment: Recognize the importance of self-determination to encourage community investment and that everyone can play a supportive role.
  • Reflective Process: Take a sustained approach over multiple generations to improve outcomes in a trauma-impacted community.

BRIDGE receives support from Citi Foundation, which is also an underwriter of the City Accelerator.

Models matter. In Chattanooga, as we gained experience in helping homeless individuals and the greater homeless community, we were also able to learn and adapt from the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) in Austin, Texas. Like the model outlined in the Trauma-Informed Community Building white paper, it took a more holistic approach.

That multi-million dollar facility, opened in 2004 near the popular 6th Street in downtown Austin, includes an array of services and support. Other co-located agencies (including an innovative police precinct) make the ARCH a true one-stop-shop where clients can receive support for mental health, medical, legal, employment and other needs. Officers assigned to the police precinct are there not to comfort and protect the general downtown public from the homeless, but to aid and assist the homeless population and to protect them from outsiders who might try to harm them or draw them into criminal activity.

Our response in Chattanooga was a gathering of supportive services and temporary/transitional housing on a largely vacant 30+ acre location near Chattanooga City Hall – the site of a former farmer’s market. Very much like we found in Austin, we provided new services and contributed funding for enhanced or expanded services in the adjacent Community Kitchen – a long-term fixture in serving our city's homeless. We even built an impressive police precinct. (On that subject, I recently told Chattanooga's new chief of police who came to us from Austin that I felt that I should turn myself in and confess that we stole the idea from his former community.)

The point is this: Regardless of whether you are trying to help a single individual or develop a large housing project, there are no simple solutions for urban poverty and homelessness. The quick provision of a house or a job will likely fail or certainly fall short. It is important to realize that trauma is involved – whether that be a single life-altering event or the constant, relentless, grinding effect of poverty and lack of hope. A more comprehensive and holistic solution is required – something that recognizes the traumatic origins of the problem at hand and the inherent and inescapable complexity of the prescribed solution.

While “trauma-informed" might be a new term and a new concept, it is clearly an idea that needs to proliferate across our communities.

Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.