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Homeless Experience & Grief

by Chandra L Stone, M.S. ED., NCC

It is a sad fact that when one looks to grief, that you do not hear much about the homeless population in the literature or in research. Oftentimes, this population has had such high levels of grief and trauma resulting from crisis situations like abuse, bad choices that result in things like incarceration, self-esteem issues, losing a home, not being able to support onself, and so many more issues that they are hard to access, but need it the most. When you look at the homeless population with Maslow's hierarchy of needs, it can show a sad state of affairs.

Even if the person manages to find a homeless shelter, often the time periods for stay and policies around stays negate the ability to stay for any length of time and get assistance on the myriad of issues that came together to make this person susceptible to becoming homeless because only there physiological needs are met, and only for short periods of time. Even if a transitional home with a longer stay is found, oftentimes, regardless of the best intentions of those running the facilities, the people there do not get their safety needs met as they know that they could at any time be thrown out if they break the rules and that the time of stay is limited. Unfortunately, the homeless population out of transitional facilities often do not maintain the support structure that is built during that time as they are often embarassed by the fact that they were homeless. This negates the ability to even thinking about belonging and love needs being met, as they hide that part of themselves and push it down, thus there can even be grief about not being able to be open about oneself. While that is not always the case with people transitioning out of homeless shelter and transitional homes, it is more often the fact than not.

In my experience at a transitional home and supportive service for urban persons in Norfolk, Virginia as a counseling intern during my the final stages of acquiring my masters degree in counseling, this population has had so many experiences that would cause grief but rarely, if ever, allowed themselves time to grieve fully and heal. They rarely get out of the stages of grief, and transition back and forth between them: from shock and disbelief to denial to anger to depression, and rarely if ever to acceptance and reorganization. There are success stories out there where the people successfully transition into the community, get jobs, homes, and transition into careers. While they are wonderful and to be celebrated, there are many more that just fade out to not be heard of again to possibly join the ranks of the chronic homeless.

I have heard arguments about whether it is the 'fault' of the homeless person, or if it was due to no fault of their own that they became homeless, and I have come to a conclusion that it is somewhere in between. The people have experienced so many hard knocks that they have given up hope, and just learned negative behaviors that lead to negative consequences. They have not had as many opportunities to heal and learn positive behaviors that can then lead to positive consequences. Without being able to interact with the world outside of the grief stages and experience of loss after loss, this population has a difficult road to meeting all their physiological, safety, and belonging needs so that they can even go higher into esteem for the self and beyond to a successful life.

This population is extremely difficult to access, and work with due to these very same issues. However, this population needs the assistance greatly, and often resents and grieves that they do need help. Think about yourself: If you were without a home, a job, a telephone number, skills, and you were thrust into a situation where you have to rely on strangers who tell you what you can and can't do, push you into activities i.e. counseling/education that may be good for you but are required rather than self-initiated, wouldn't you feel a sense of resentment, anger and grief too? Most people in individualistic cultures want to have a sense of self and independence.

As a woman whom has only worked with the population for three months and whom never has been homeless, I can not commend those whom have experienced homelessness and made a success of their lives, nor can I commend those who work with this population enough -- both have a difficult path in order to join together in collaboration so that healing, and transitioning up through Maslow's hierarchy of needs can take place, while the homeless themselves can do the hard work of acceptance and reorganization that leads to self-sufficient and productive lifes. It is my hope that this healing can be facilitated by more attention to this population, and activism of those whom have experienced it themselves. We shall see if this population gets the attention it needs in the future.

By Chandra L. Stone, M.S. Ed., NCC


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