The Impact of Childhood Trauma on Adult Chronic Homelessness

Adverse childhood events significantly contribute to the state of being of chronically homeless adults. Society's response to homelessness among youth and adults must address the impact of trauma inflicted by those negative childhood events.


Baker Collins, S.  From Homeless Teen to Chronically Homeless Adult: A Qualitative Study of the Impact of Childhood Events on Adult Homelessness. Critical Social Work, 14(2), 61-81. Retrieved from


What is this research about?

Homeless individuals are those without adequate physical shelter or whose physical shelter is temporary. In this study chronically homeless individuals are people who have been homeless for 6 consecutive months or longer and have been homeless three or more times in the last 2 years. The current study bridges the usual divide between youth and adult homeless populations in this field of research by focusing on the impact of adverse childhood events on adult chronic homelessness from the perspective of those adults. The purpose of this research is to explore the connection between becoming homeless as teens and adult chronic homelessness.

What did the researchers do?

The researcher from McMaster University interviewed twenty chronically homeless adults who participated in a variety of homeless shelter and outreach programs in Niagara, Ontario. The interviewees were  30 years of age or older and had experienced homelessness as teens (before the age of 20). An index of childhood stressors was also used to measure the number of adverse events that the participants were exposed to in childhood and adolescence.

What did the researchers find?

The researcher found that:

  • Adult homelessness must be understood within a life story that connects teen homelessness and chronic adult homelessness.
  • The participants confirmed the importance of childhood events in contributing to chronic adult homelessness:
    ○        Adverse childhood events have affected their adult lives and given shape to the challenges, such as substance abuse and mental illness, which they face as adults in trying to secure housing.
    ○        The participants  recognized both their own responsibility in the struggle to find stable housing and the  ways in which childhood trauma impacted this struggle.

Therefore, our response to homelessness among both youth and adults must address the impact of the trauma inflicted by adverse childhood events. This requires all members of society to recognize that:

  • "Home" is more than a physical shelter. Many participants in this study had lost their "homes" long before they were without physical shelter.
  • Life stories are important because focusing only on providing physical shelter masks the impact of past experiences on the lives of homeless people who grew up in situations of family conflict, abuse, residential instability, and abandonment. Consequently, it becomes easy for the rest of society to lose sight of the causes of many characteristics that we typically associate with the homeless population, such as substance abuse and mental illness.

How can you use this research?

This research will help policymakers and individuals in social services develop more appropriate solutions to help homeless youth and homeless adults. Furthermore, the results from this study encourage us to incorporate a deeper understanding of the meaning of home, with a life story and social processes that tie together teen homelessness and chronic adult homelessness, in our response to homelessness.

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