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SHIFT Study Highlights Trauma's Impact on Homelessness

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In a recent study, the National Center on Family Homelessness was able to identify two predictors for long-term residential instability, providing insights into the outcomes of homeless families. New information from Service and Housing Interventions for Families in Transition (the SHIFT Study) can identify effective ways for families to maintain residential stability.

The intent of the SHIFT Study was to examine residential stability of families over time, comparing families staying in emergency shelter, transitional housing or permanent supportive housing. The study was conducted from 2007 to 2010 in Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo, and Albany, New York. These locations suggest that the findings are representative of other mid-sized cities. SHIFT included 292 families at baseline, interviewing mothers about themselves and their children, and re-interviewing them at fifteen months (192 families) and thirty months (184 families).

One of the most striking findings was that trauma was one of only two predictors of residential instability after thirty months. “At fifteen months, there were four significant predictors for residential instability: unemployment, lower level of education, poor health and lower self-esteem. At thirty months, the only predictors were the severity of trauma symptoms and lower self-esteem,” said National Center Director Dr. Carmela DeCandia. Additionally, SHIFT found that 93% of the mothers had a history of trauma.

“This is consistent with the Worcester study, where 93% of adult females were found to have histories of trauma. The SHIFT Study goes a step further and has identified a link to residential instability at thirty months. The implications are clear, if we are to address long-term residential instability for homeless families, we must address trauma, otherwise they likely won’t stabilize,” said DeCandia.

Interpersonal victimization was the most prevalent type of trauma. Half of the mothers had been sexually abused as children and two-thirds had been physically abused in their lifetime. “The SHIFT Study provides us with a much better understanding of the effect of trauma among homeless families,” said Dr. Maureen Hayes, senior researcher at the National Center. “Previous studies have revealed that trauma is common among mothers in homeless families, but it was not understood how – or even if – it impacted a family’s functioning and ability to stabilize. This is the first study to find that trauma is not merely a characteristic of these mothers, but its severity also impacts a family’s ability to maintain residential stability. The families with mothers suffering from severe trauma symptoms, then, will not benefit from any programs or services unless their trauma is recognized and effectively addressed.”

With this in mind, the National Center recommends that service providers be educated to the prevalence of trauma and its role as a predictor of long-term residential instability. Providers should be given tools to help clients understand and cope with that trauma, including the implementation of trauma-informed care for people experiencing homelessness.

DeCandia explained that recommendation. “It is important that the entire service system understand how to provide trauma-informed care, so that no matter what door a homeless family walks through, they can be assured a basic level of appropriate care. Trauma-informed care is a cost-effective organizational response to the extraordinarily high rates of trauma in this population. It’s an investment in training the workforce to improve its responsiveness to families. Plus, it is important providers assess the entire family, including the kids, to identify early on who is most affected by trauma and related issues. This is not currently standard practice, but it should be.” Training for trauma-informed care is available through several providers, including the National Center.

Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources, including resources on homelessness and trauma.

Last Updated

Last Updated: 04/19/2016