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Compassion in Homeless Services: The Power of Trauma-Informed Care

By Tendall Weigand

Trauma is universal and invisible; it affects people differently and seldom in the same way for two people. A significant portion of those who are homeless have experienced various types of traumatic stress prior to their experiencing homelessness, such as mental illness, family members who are incarcerated, marital violence, abuse or neglect suffered as a children, and/or family and community violence. Numerous individuals have encountered the distressing consequences of homelessness itself, such as aggression, revictimization, stigma, malnourishment, and more adverse consequences. “The impact of traumatic stress can be devastating and long-lasting, interfering with a person’s sense of safety, ability to self-regulate, sense of self, perception of control and self-efficacy, and interpersonal relationships (Hopper, Bassuk, and Olivet 2010). Providers in serve settings are growing more conscious of the change to address both the short-term crisis of homelessness and the long-term recovery and healing of these individuals, a strategy referred to as Trauma-Informed Care.

What are the core principles of trauma-informed care?

1. Trauma Awareness: Trauma-informed service providers incorporate an understanding of trauma into their work. This may involve altering staff perspectives, with providers understanding how various symptoms and behaviors represent adaptations to traumatic experiences. Dealing with vicarious trauma and self-care is also an essential ingredient of trauma-informed services.

2. Emphasis on Safety: Trauma survivors often feel unsafe and may actually be in danger (victims of domestic violence). Trauma-informed care works towards building physical and emotional safety for clients and providers, ensuring cultural competency and involving clients input in improving programs and policies.

3. Opportunities to Rebuild Control: Because control is often taken away in traumatic situations, and because homelessness itself is disempowering, trauma-informed homeless services emphasize the importance of choice for clients while also building environments that allow clients to rebuild a sense of efficacy and personal control over their lives.

4. Strengths-Based Approach: Trauma-informed care is a strengths-based approach, rather than deficit-oriented approach. The service settings assist clients to identify their own strengths and develop coping skills. TIC service settings are focused on the future and utilize skills-building to further develop resiliency.

Based on these combined principles, researchers developed a consensus-based definition of TIC: “Trauma-Informed Care is a strengths-based framework that is grounded in an understanding of and responsiveness to the impact of trauma, that emphasizes physical, psychological and emotional safety for both providers and survivors, and that creates opportunities for survivors to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment”.

Balancing Mental Health and Trauma-Informed Care

“Trauma reactions are not the only psychiatric issue facing people who are homeless; many people experiencing homelessness also suffer from depression, substance abuse, and severe mental illness. These issues leave individuals even more vulnerable to revictimization, interfere with their ability to work, impair their social networks, and further complicate their service needs (Hopper, Basuk and Olivet 2010). Katie Roemerman, a Clinic Therapist employed by Tanager Place, is contracted for her services through Willis Dady to provide on-site shelter therapy for clients. She writes, “I assist each client in learning about their unique strengths to gain self-confidence. I realize that each of my clients are presented with different life challenges. That is why I look to find “outside the box” solutions that are unique to each client”. Alongside the design of Willis Dady services, staff and operations, Katie is a meaningful addition to the team in supporting the trauma-informed approach and assisting clients with healing of traumatic experiences and addressing current mental illness needs and diagnoses.

Housing First Model at Willis Dady as a Trauma-Informed Practice

Eliminating homelessness is crucial for those with traumatic backgrounds in order to work toward trauma recovery and resilience building. As a result, Housing First is a trauma-informed strategy unto itself. The Housing First strategy places a high priority on giving homeless individuals permanent homes, which ends their homelessness and gives them a base from which to pursue personal objectives and enhance their quality of life. This strategy is based on the idea that people need basic necessities, like food and a place to live, before concentrating on larger problems such as finding work, creating budgets, or managing substance use issues. Furthermore, it can be extremely difficult for trauma survivors to abandon a “fight or flight” response without secure and supportive housing. The whole system approach of Housing First requires a range of services and programs. These include: case management support, health care, income supports, employment services, emergency shelter, permanent supportive housing, affordable housing, rapid re-housing, and more.


  • Bransford, C., & Cole, M. (2019). Trauma-informed care in homelessness service settings: Challenges and opportunities. Homelessness Prevention and Intervention in Social Work, 255-277.

  • Hopper, E. K., Bassuk, E. L., & Olivet, J. (2010). Shelter from the storm: Trauma-informed care in homelessness services settings. The Open Health Services and Policy Journal, 3(1), 80-100.

  • Resler, M. (2017). Facing the Facts: Trauma-Informed Practices in Homeless Intervention Services. Family & Children's Trust Fund of Virginia. chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/ -content/uploads/2017/11/FACT-ISSUE-BRIEF-TRAUMA-INFORMED-Homeless-Inter vention-FINAL.pdf

Tendall Weigand is a senior student enrolled full-time at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. She is currently working for Willis Dady as a Support Services Intern. She will graduate in May with a degree in Sociology, Spanish and Civic Engagement with hopes to enter a professional career after graduation in direct service, social work, or counseling.


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