Trauma may be defined as an event outside the range of usual human experiences that would be markedly distressing to almost anyone and cause victimization. This includes a serious threat to his or her life or physical integrity; a serious threat to harm his or her children, spouse or close relatives or friends; the sudden destruction of his or her home and community; or seeing another person seriously injured or killed in an accident or by physical violence.
Trauma can destroy the trust relationship of the victim with themselves and the world. This creates an inordinate amount of stress on the mental, emotional and physical capacities of the victim whose coping behaviours and belief structures have been shattered by trauma. The victim no longer knows how to act or what to expect from the world in order to survive. Their unique living conditions and life histories make homeless people particularly vulnerable to traumatic events. This physical or psychological trauma may precede or follow the onset of homelessness
Homelessness is associated with a variety of traumatic social problems, including family breakdown and abuse, adverse childhood experiences, foster care, youth pregnancy and inadequate parenting skills, and child development problems. Homeless adults typically experienced sexual and physical abuse as children. For women, escape from domestic violence is a frequent cause for homelessness. While homeless youth come from all classes, most come from families where physical abuse, exacerbated by long term unemployment and parental drug and alcohol use is the norm. Effectively reducing child abuse may significantly reduce the number of homeless people.
Trauma and victimization continues for a person that ends up homeless. The most frequent violent trauma occurring among homeless women is rape. The most common violent trauma among homeless men is assault. The homeless with mental illnesses are more susceptible to trauma. They tend to wander in public places, display detachment and respond slowly to events due to their depression. Being homeless precipitates more traumatic experiences and the cycle is difficult to end.
Numerous studies have established that homeless people experience high levels of violence and victimization. Homeless people are more often victims of crime than housed people. In research, many homeless people, regardless of gender or age, have reported experiences of physical assault or aggression (sometimes by police), sexual assault, sexual harassment, and/or rape. Rough sleepers are especially vulnerable to being victimized.
Most homeless people that are victims of crime choose not to report it to the police, for a number of reasons. They have been dissatisfied with the response of police in the past (ineffective or uninterested), they mistrust the police and are not in a good position to challenge mistreatment, or they fear retribution for “squealing”. Violations of street culture may result in retaliation from other homeless people, drug dealers or pimps.
People who are homeless suffer from a lack of guardianship, increased exposure to criminals, and the inability to avoid dangerous areas. All of these factors increase an individual’s vulnerability to crimes that include assault, robbery, theft, vandalism and sexual assault. In turn, homeless people adapt and survive by committing their own offenses such as carrying weapons or seeking their own retribution against criminals, as relations with law enforcement are typically strained.
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