Can a whole human services sub-sector transform its practice and reduce chronic homelessness?

As I circulate across human services and health service sectors, everyone is talking about trauma informed practice. This concept has moved from being viewed as a particular therapeutic practice to being seen as an approach that may have much broader application. This is not surprising given our growing understanding of brain science and the impact on trauma, particularly at crucial times of child development and how this may be impacting on how people interact with various service systems.

The research is providing new insights across a range of human services sectors including in the homelessness sector. Understanding the impact of trauma partially explains why our work is becoming more complex. It also helps to explain why many of our clients struggle to respond to traditional service responses. Finally, it also opens up the opportunity to engage with new approaches and strategies that may provide clearer pathways for people for whom the human service system is clearly failing them.  

This increased interest in trauma-informed practice means we are seeing the emergence of particular therapeutic models that embrace trauma informed practice. We are also beginning to see whole organisations not only changing particular policies and practices, but fundamentally confronting  work cultures that may inadvertently re-traumatise the vulnerable service users they are working with. We have seen broad whole of community processes engaging with this concept  - for example, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recognised the significance of this issue, and as part of its work commissioned particular research that explored the principles of trauma-informed approaches to child sexual abuse. We are also seeing whole human services sub-sectors work to try and shift the way these systems engage with people who are impacted by trauma in areas including out-of-home care, mental health and homelessness.

The ACT specialist homelessness sector is currently reflecting on how greater engagement with trauma informed approaches may enhance the great work that is already occurring to break the cycle of homelessness.

Many organisations already work in complementary ways. Feminist based services work within a philosophical base that acknowledges the importance of ensuring that service delivery should emphasise relationship, safety and recovery in order to be successful. There has been an acknowledgement however that given the research that 100% of people engaging with homelessness services are impacted by trauma, there is room to improve our understanding and commence the journey to become more trauma informed.

The evidence base is well developed. This fast-moving area of research is providing more and more ideas about how practice approaches should be responding to our improving understanding of trauma. It is providing insights on how improving our therapeutic interactions with service users can help them to deal with underlying trauma, recover and improve their current situations. It gives us an understanding that improving organisational responses can mean that service users start trusting services more. It enables us to glimpse a potential future where a transformed human services sector sees the end of service users being lost in the system and given up on because their situation is too hard for us to respond to.

The research is also providing significant learnings about particular groups that are likely to be impacted. We now understand the strong links between mental health, social disadvantage, homelessness and trauma, what some researchers have dubbed the ‘cluster of vulnerability’. We also are now beginning to better understand the devastated impact of institutional racist policies that led to the stolen generation and how it has led to inter-generational trauma for the First Australians.

While the research base is there however, the ability of practitioners, organisations and service systems to deeply engage in this approach is challenging. This will not be achieved with some tweaking of practice, or some generic training  - even in sub sectors that are on board with this approach and practice. Instead, it calls for deep reflection of the ways in which service workers engage with service users.

The research clearly flags that adopting this approach means we need to invest much more support for workers who are on the front line. Not only do they need specific therapeutic skills, they also need to support to deal with the effects of vicarious trauma triggered by this type of work.

The research clearly leads organisations to reflect on their practice and culture. Adopting trauma informed approaches means that organisations need to fundamentally assess their policies and procedures – beyond specific therapeutic services to all ways they engage with potential, current and past service users.

The research also suggests that if we are to see sector wide transformation, sector leaders need to work together to identify and remove the barriers that may have the effect of re-traumatising service users. This presents real challenges given that these have often been created because of a lack of resources, capacity and investment in service responses. This also leads us to acknowledging that this transformation can only happen in partnership with policy makers, funders and governments. This partnership will need to include a commitment to invest for the long term and shared engagement with cultural change processes. It will require trust and support for funded agencies as they move through this process. It will require an understanding that this is a journey rather than something that a one-off short-term investment can fix.

The journey in the ACT has only just begun. This homelessness sector has signalled a strong appetite to engage in this service approach, and a desire work over the long term to make this sub sector become more trauma informed. There is a level of reasonable caution, particularly given their clear understanding that this cannot occur without the support and partnership of policy makers, regulators and funders.  However, with this reflection and engagement with Government, there is a chance that we can work together to translate this potential to real change, and transform the lives of people struggling with homelessness in the Territory.

Rebecca Vassarotti is an independent consultant, community advocate and writer based in the ACT. She is currently engaged by ACT Shelter with colleague Sarah Spiller to work with the sector to explore options around supporting the sector to become more trauma informed. This project has been supported by the ACT Government.