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Peer Perspectives

Without Sanctuary — Homelessness and Family Structure

By D. E. Harris, MSW, LSW

Originally from Philadelphia, I was, for more than 60 days, homeless in Manhattan. Now, I am a licensed clinician. Based on my experience, I believe the most pervasive theme among people experiencing homelessness is family. I am not referring to the casual "bro" or "sis"; I mean the sort of family that children construct playing the imaginative game "house." In the game, a child will pick someone to play the mother, father, sister, brother, and so on. How does the child choose? And why is one child the father figure and another the mother figure? Sitting in a homeless drop-in center day after day, house is played between perfect strangers, but why?

Family Matters
Familial neglect is what I saw and heard most frequently in the shelter I lived in. People aren't sitting around saying they are victims of familial neglect, but when they describe their upbringing, shame, guilt, resiliency, and finally how they became homeless, what typically emerges is that a key family member in their life was absent. Most know that what happens in one's home has a ripple effect on society; however, we might not be aware of the power a single family unit has on the functionality and well-being of another. I mean family, and not community, because what I am referencing has not historically fallen into the category of a community concern.

Many African Americans ascribed familial titles such as "aunt" and "uncle" to people who are not biologically related. It was common practice for immigrants in America to unofficially adopt children who were not properly cared for by their legal guardians. In either case, the individual's family or guardians might have still been alive, but were inactive or absent from the child's life. The African American, immigrant, and low-income homes provided something that was missing from the child's life: It was recognition that some form of family is better than none.

In my view, homelessness is not a community problem, but a family one. An observant and resourceful neighbor of yesteryear (often living under the same social constrains as the person who is homeless they adopted) would attempt to remedy it. Today, among many individuals experiencing homelessness, the situation appears to be the same, but the process that society has prescribed to mitigate the event of homelessness has changed. Many social workers do not realize that the way in which displaced individuals cope with the event of homelessness has not changed.

Homeless or not, people assign caregivers to roles that family members would have assumed. It is not merely a case of transference and countertransference. It appears to be an innate human need to create a familiar societal structure of safety (otherwise known as family)—not community. Therefore, a family is not optional, but a requirement for optimal health and mental wellness. This makes perfect sense, especially in a city such as New York, where you are confronted by the normalization of abuse.

A City Changed
New York, particularly Manhattan, has changed dramatically since the events of 9/11. The daily and sometimes hourly abrasive tiffs toward each other have become a norm. While the city has become physically safer, no one is emotionally or psychologically healthier. We know that a threat is perceptual—no one needs to be in actual danger for their mind to believe that they are in harm's way—and behave accordingly. The presence of armed security in public spaces is commonplace, but brings no reassurance. In any public building, you will be met by two harsh realities: a traumatized organizational structure and a culture of abuse. You will see, as soon as you enter, an armed guard of some sort, and you will have to navigate an organization that may be sicker than you are. If you're lucky (that is, if security doesn't scare you out of the building), you must be well enough to coherently explain what you need, why you need it, and what makes you think that place can provide it, fill out paperwork, and help nonessential staff members by repeating everything you just said to someone else a minute ago. You are homeless, without a proper family, and deeply fearful of authority figures because they abandoned you. Now here you are, facing authority figures who look at you with the same shameful expression your mother had before she passed away. New York City is a hard place to be homeless, but what makes traversing homelessness more difficult is the lack of knowledge about trauma by those who work with the public.

New York City needs a model to address the unresolved trauma of the city. During my social work training, the City of Philadelphia adopted a trauma model called Sanctuary. While I have some reservations about the model, I believe that a trauma model is necessary to triage New York City. The Sanctuary model was created by Sandra Bloom, MD, and colleagues. The intention of a trauma model is to address the health of an organization's culture. Some social service organizations, government agencies, and pubic services may become traumatized, based on the trauma that their clients face. A counselor who treats clients with PTSD may become traumatized due to the nature of empathy, compassion, and the healing arts. The Sanctuary model, while intended for inpatient treatment, may be useful for a city such as New York.

When I think about my experience of homelessness in New York City, I think about the people who made it out of homelessness and the ones that didn't. Too few and far between were the ones that did. A key feature of any organizational model is positive caregivers. Just as in your own family, there are relatives and then there are in-laws. While it could be said that everyone in New York City is an in-law to someone, there are people in the city who are relatives to each other. These are the people who make it out, who overcome homelessness—the ones who not only grew up playing the game house but also can identify what a positive and supportive family unit looks like and recreate it. It cannot be denied that the events of 9/11 changed New York, America, and our world forever, but can we start looking out for each other, or do we need to end up on the streets?

— D. E. Harris, MSW, LSW, is a clinician, certified trauma professional, and essayist, who uses his clinical training in social welfare and trauma to understand the ethics and morals in everyday experiences.