- New research into the emotional causes of homelessness is redefining the issue and will hopefully instigate change in government policy, practice and advocacy in the homeless sector
- Researcher Catherine Robinson says traumatic events often have a deep and ongoing impact on a person, and the development of trauma-informed service provisions are needed
Over 100 000 people are currently homeless in Australia. 16 000 of these people live in the greater Sydney region. New research by Dr Catherine Robinson into the causes and long-term effects of homelessness show understanding personal trauma could be the key to redefining social perceptions and assisting with government and community responses.
Seeing homeless people on the street is part of life in a big city, however too few of us pause to think about how or why these people are without a roof over their heads. Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences’ Cultural Studies Group Catherine Robinson knows there’s much more to homelessness than meets the eye. She’s hoping to deliver society with a new understanding of the issue.
Robinson has spent the last six years investigating how personal trauma and homelessness are intertwined for many Australians. Though local and international research have linked the two, she says there’s still a lack of legitimate scholarly work not only around how emotional being relates to the likelihood of homelessness, but the emotional dimension of being homeless itself.
“There are people in the world who live through horrendous experiences and those experiences shape them in all kinds of ways,” Robinson explains. “I look at issues of traumatisation and the vital role of interpersonal resonance in doing research as a way of actually learning about other people’s experiences.”
An ex-pat Tasmanian living in Sydney, it was Robinson’s reflection on connection to home that drew her into this complex research.
“For me, place has been an incredibly important dimension of how I am in the world and my own sense of belonging and community. Our homes are our sacred places and so too are the relationships we have with the people in them.”
For Robinson, there is a difference between short-term homelessness, which may be due to financial factors, and long-term homelessness, which can happen to people who have fragmented relationships with community, family and friends. These people are often also survivors of lifetime violence and experience ongoing trauma originating from childhood sexual and physical abuse.
“Homelessness is not just about a lack of housing; it’s understanding a person has often become homeless because of traumatic events that have occurred. Therefore, responding with housing solutions doesn’t actually respond to the kind of primal homelessness they’re experiencing,” she says.
Robinson uses the term ‘primal homelessness’ to try to capture the disorienting bodily and emotional dislocations caused by the impacts of complex trauma. She argues not only do some people experience material homelessness and geographical displacement, they also experience bodily and emotional dislocation because of the effects of traumatic events and the pressures of living homeless.
Robinson has been studying other childhood traumas as part of her research. Working in relief youth accommodation for the Oasis Youth Support Network early in her career allowed her to develop an understanding of the effects of childhood trauma and how it can be a key factor in the likelihood of someone experiencing homelessness later in life.
“Most cases of child abuse, both physical and sexual, takes place in the home. Violence and abuse starting from birth or uteri concretely contributes to long-term or repeated homelessness in Australia.
“It was my own emotional response to working in the field which spurred much of this research. If I’m traumatised as a witness to people’s experiences, then that reflects just how horrendous those experiences are.”
Based on her findings, Robinson released Beside One’s Self: Homelessness felt and lived. The book examines the deep and ongoing impact such experiences can have on a person.
“My perspective really hinges on my observation that the emotional impacts of homelessness are not well described, understood or included in policy and service responses to the experience of being homeless.”
By delving into the connection between trauma and homelessness, Robinson hopes her research will inspire a dramatic reassessment of government policy, practice and advocacy in the homeless sector, delivering new ideas on how to better respond to the problem.
“The government needs to look beyond food and shelter to a much more skilled response, one that includes an awareness of trauma and how to better provide services for people who are experiencing it.
“We need to begin looking at the origin of the issue and trace it to work out how to fix it. Providing support to people is absolutely vital.”
Robinson’s most recent project looks at homeless people surviving violence and calls for the development of trauma-informed service provisions in the homeless sector. Funded by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and the Homeless Persons’ Legal Service (a branch of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre), the project is in collaboration with the UTS Shopfront Monograph Series 6, an initiative that publishes high impact, community focused research articles.
“Homelessness has been written about extensively and with the recent census, there has been a renewed focus on the importance of counting homeless people and getting that snapshot view. Further research is needed to qualitatively capture the emotional suffering central to homelessness in order to consider how best to respond.”
She is confident of the government, services and community’s capacity to engage with the traumatic emotional and bodily causes and experiences of homelessness and hopes this will instigate change.
“When I think about what it would mean to be placeless, to have no connection to landscape, to have ties to place and people and community completely ruptured, I’m inspired to do something to help governments and the broader community understand and find a solution. I hope that’s what my research will achieve.”