Stopping the Cycle of Trauma and Homelessness

For a mother, experiencing homelessness comes with many challenges. It is a daily challenge to get the services, support, food, and education a child needs. It can be difficult to deal with the family dynamics that arise when you are forced to raise your children in public, which is, in most cases, part of being a family experiencing homelessness. When you add the mother’s past trauma into the relationship, the situation becomes more stressful and the effect on the child is often a reduction in the attachment they need to feel safe and develop normally. There are a number of things that systems and programs that serve mothers experiencing homelessness can do to make the experience of homelessness more manageable and to ultimately break-through the trauma cycle to lead to safety and stability.

USICH spoke with Joan Gillece the Director for SAMHSA’s National Center of Trauma-informed Care. She shared six steps to improve or develop a trauma-informed care approach.


  1. Assume a background of trauma. Studies show that the great majority of women and children experiencing homelessness have past trauma. Simply making your organization aware of the issue and its effects is the first step.
  2. Evaluate your basic rules and regulations from the perspective of your clients/ the perspective of a mom who has a history of violent trauma and who is trying to find stability for herself and her children. Try to be flexible on anything that you can be flexible on. Everyone benefits when a shelter or housing environment feels safer and some rules improve safety or a sense of safety, but if you really think about it, many common rules do nothing to improve safety and instead can just make people feel alienated or even less safe if they feel less in control.
  3. Assess the physical space in your organization from the same perspective. Is there room for privacy? Rooms with locks, shower stalls that work, etc. Raising children in public is hard. Dealing with fear and a lack of trust is hard. Physical spaces can either feed this fear and distrust or they can provide a sense of security and privacy.
  4. Think about how the staff is treated by the organization and how in turn the staff treats women in your program. When we travel to organizations to provide training, we have found that many staff have also experienced trauma themselves. Provide workforce development: train staff on dealing with their own trauma as well as on on working with others who have experienced trauma. From the organizational perspective, make sure you are treating your own staff with respect.
  5. Focus on the children. In order to break the multi-generational loop, you need to make sure that the children in the program are getting what they need. Timing is critical with children. You should work on their needs as soon as possible and in whatever window you have available. Evaluate the kids using standard practices and see where they need help. Just because a young child isn’t talking about a trauma doesn’t mean they don’t need help. Homelessness itself is traumatic, and from what we know about the numbers, it is safe to assume that every child in your program needs to work through a trauma of some type.
  6. Start trauma peer groups for moms in your program. They really help build trust and strength. Mothers with a history of trauma need to feel safe first and foremost and having a supportive peer-to-peer environment available can dramatically help rebuild a shattered sense of trust.

In addition to the steps above, Gillece shared some lessons she has learned from her years working with women who have experienced trauma on how to improve the trust relationship on the individual level.


  1. Don’t underestimate the degree to which past trauma is connected to all aspects of child rearing. I worked on a study in Baltimore targeting young mothers with histories of trauma. The study provided top-notch services for the women and their children and overall we were seeing great outcomes, except in one area. The mothers in the study were very reluctant to breast feed even though we presented them with information about the health and psychological benefits. We realized after a period of time that this reluctance was because the trauma of past sexual abuse made it very hard for the mothers to think of the act of breast-feeding as an act of wholesome bonding and attachment between mother and child. They could only think of it sexually and as a violation against their children.
  2. Treat people with respect. Ask what happened to you, not what’s wrong with you. The words you choose have a big impact on the relationship you can build with someone who is likely skeptical of your intentions to begin with.
  3. Contentious behavior is often adaptive behavior. This includes drug use and other addictions, anger, self-harm, and other behaviors considered negative by many shelters and public systems. Don’t judge people for these behaviors, try to see through them to the underlying causes.
  4. Don’t strip away someone’s sense of self or control. Give them the tools to self-regulate and make their own decisions. As just one basic example, at a conference on homelessness we wouldn’t dream of demanding that everyone check their cell phones at the door, but many shelters do just this. Sometimes a cell phone can provide an important sense of safety and connection.
  5. Focus on strengths not weaknesses. This is fundamental, but is still commonly overlooked. When you meet someone through outreach or they come to you for services, don’t start with listing their addictions, economic difficulties, health and mental health needs. Start with what they do well. What they have going for them. Start with understanding the family relationship. Start with what makes them strong. This doesn’t mean that you ignore the weaknesses, but it means that you see the best in them instead of the worst and this can make all the difference in helping them become a stronger person.

Read more on this important topic:

A blog post from USICH Deputy Director Jennifer Ho on the Importance of Trauma-Informed Care for mothers experiencing homelessness

A profile of N Street Village's successful program for helping women experiencing homelessness overcome trauma histories

Information on trauma and female Veterans

Recommended reading list on trauma, mothers, and children from Ellen Bassuk, the founder and president of the National Center for Family Homelessness and the Director of the Center for Social Innovation