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Breaking the cycle of trauma and homelessness

Dozens of people congregate outside the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter on Main Street in Bangor on a Friday morning in November 2009.
Bridget Brown | BDN
Dozens of people congregate outside the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter on Main Street in Bangor on a Friday morning in November 2009. Buy Photo
Posted April 29, 2013, at 1:05 p.m.

The Bangor Area Homeless Shelter is willing to temporarily house anyone over the age of 18 who would like to remain clean and sober. All types of individuals come to the shelter. Ages vary and often include the elderly. While we attempt to refer anyone suffering from domestic violence to the Bangor nonprofit Spruce Run or utilize Rape Response Services in Bangor when someone has been victimized sexually, some of the individuals we see are unable to access other resources, and their only available option is the shelter.

Many staying in the shelter have a history of being traumatized as a result of domestic violence or sexual assault, and many continue to feel the pain of the trauma as they suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder that results when someone experiences events that cause the person to feel the threat of death for themselves or someone else. Symptoms include distressing recollections, numbing avoidance and increased reactivity that impair one’s social and occupational functioning. The tendency for individuals to develop long-term post-traumatic stress disorder is greatly increased when pre-existing factors are in place. Specifically, women who are single, have few social supports, no spiritual affiliation and who have experienced previous trauma are more inclined to suffer from PTSD.

Similarly, men with pre-existing mental health issues or prior traumatic experiences are more likely to develop PTSD as a result of trauma. Without successful treatment, PTSD can impact one’s ability to function. Activities of daily living become impaired; substance use can become an issue; and multiple hospitalizations may occur. All of these factors can cause an individual who may have otherwise had a stable living situation to end up at a shelter.

While staying at the shelter, we work with guests on a plan of care. Should PTSD be one of the issues as a result of sexual abuse or any kind of trauma, we will work with them to ensure they are receiving the appropriate counseling and medication treatments. As establishing stability is imperative for transitioning from the shelter, guests are required to adhere to their treatment and care plans. The consistency, structure and support they receive provides for greater success once they transition back to the community.

Unfortunately, if treatment and support don’t continue after people leave the shelter, their PTSD may return full force, especially if they experience another trauma, and they may end up in the hospital or, once again, homeless. People need ongoing case management when they transition back to the community; intervention should happen before people lose their jobs or housing again.

Eleanor came to the shelter two years ago. Despite being in her late 20s, she had a significant problem with alcohol. When she was younger, she had been raped. And prior to coming to us, she had been the victim of domestic violence. As things were unraveling for her, she was hospitalized for a couple weeks, was released and then hospitalized for a couple more weeks. She also had one overnight stay at the hospital to detox. Through all of this, she lost her apartment. She had no family in the area and had not continued to utilize any mental health or medical services.

While staying at the shelter, she was able to reestablish these connections and attended intensive treatment sessions. She remained at the shelter for four months, while she worked on sobriety and addressing her mental health issues. She established a support system, including the shelter staff, and has been stably housed for one-and-a-half years.

She checks in with us often and calls service providers for help prior to things getting out of control. She is active in Alcoholics Anonymous and is working while attending a local university. Our hope for her is that she will never return to the shelter.

Family, friends and neighbors can help support people like Eleanor to break the cycle of trauma and homelessness. When noticing changes in someone like Eleanor, such as withdrawal, nervousness, increased substance use or any other changes that are out of the norm for her usual character, ask her (when sober) if there is someone she can call or someone you can call on her behalf. If you know there are support people in her life and know how to contact them, give them a heads up that she is seemingly having difficulty. We all need to work together as a community to offer support when people are suffering.

Through that, we may be able to alleviate the impact of trauma on a person’s life and avoid stays at the shelter.

Rowena Griffin is the program manager of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter.

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