The Things They Carry: Trauma and Homelessness

What does childhood sexual abuse have to do with homelessness and schizophrenia?

Posted Mar 04, 2018

Josephine Ensign
Source: Josephine Ensign

It is a well-established fact that trauma both precedes and accompanies homelessness. And especially for women (although, of course, not exclusively women), histories of childhood sexual abuse often contribute to homelessness and to mental health issues, including schizophrenia.*

Today’s NYT article serves as a case study of sorts for this connection. In his poignant in-depth article, “A ‘Bright Light,’ Dimmed in the Shadows of Homelessness,” Benjamin Weiser writes of the life—and death— of the Williams College graduate, Nakesha Williams.  Ms. Williams was, by all accounts, a brilliant, talented, articulate, well-read, and highly educated woman who was loved and supported by many relatives, friends, and even strangers who got to know her as she spiraled into homelessness and ultimately an untimely death on the streets of New York City. It is telling that the vast majority of the (as of this writing) 535 reader comments run along the lines of “the lump in my throat and the salt in my coffee from the tears streaming down my face,” as well as “if it (homelessness) could happen to her, it can happen to any of us.” There are, of course, the occasional comments such as “she refused help all along the way so what can we do?” and “she died with her individual choice and dignity intact” (I paraphrase here). But, hello dear reading public! Didn’t anyone pick up on the fact that a de-facto step-father of Nakesha was, in Weiser’s words, “an abusive man who repeatedly molested Nakesha when she was just a child” ?

Especially in this somewhat more “woke” era of the #MeToo era, I find it dismaying that as society—and as a supposedly socially progressive and educated readership of a national newspaper such as the NYT—people still do make this connection. If we do not connect these important dots in the cause and effect scheme of things, how can we have any hope of improving the life trajectories of all the amazing people like Nakesha Williams?

Here are some resources:


“Childhood trauma, PTSD, and psychosis: Findings from a highly traumatized, minority sample” Abigail Powers, et al in Child Abuse and Neglect, August 2016, 58: 111-118.

“Trauma and the psychosis spectrum: A review and explanatory mechanisms” Lauren E. Gibson, et al in Clinical Psychology Review, November 2016, 49:92-105.

"Shelter from the Storm: Trauma-Informed Care in Homelessness Service Settings" by Elizabeth K. Hopper, Ellen L. Bassuk, and Jeffrey Olivet in The Open Health Services and Policy Journal, 2010, 3:80-100. 

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