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Homelessness is a serious (and growing) problem in nearly every major city. Organizations provide assistance to the homeless in many different ways: soup kitchens, temporary shelter, permanent housing, clothing, and counseling to receive state or federal subsidies. For those who would like to help the homeless, there are several options for becoming involved. One can donate financially or volunteer their time, for example. But for some, that’s not enough. Those who want to dedicate not only their spare hours or their spare change to solving the problem of homelessness may be interested in dedicating their careers to the cause.

The issue of homelessness, however, is about much more than simply not having a permanent residence. Mental health, physical health, traumatic experiences, and substance abuse are all contributing factors. Those who wish to help the homeless can benefit from special training in a number of different areas. This type of training will better prepare them for what they encounter on the street, and will make it easier for them to provide meaningful assistance.

Basic Health Care and Homelessness

Being homeless, in itself, can impact an individual’s ability to remain physically healthy. Due to the fact that many of the homeless also suffer from psychological illnesses or substance abuse problems, basic health concerns can become a high priority when a worker is determining how to best help someone. In order to get that person the help they need, the worker needs to have a comprehensive knowledge of the basic health care programs available to the homeless in their region, and what each of these clinics or services cover. They should also learn techniques and strategies for encouraging consistency in caring for one’s health.

Substance Abuse and Homelessness

While the idea that the homeless tend to have substance abuse problems is a derogatory stereotype, the fact is that a statistically high number of homeless people do have problems with addiction. Many do not become homeless because of their addiction, but instead seek solace in substance use after becoming homeless. Those who are working in homeless services training need to be trained to recognize substance abuse as an illness. They should also be familiar with the substance abuse treatment programs in their area and the resources available for the homeless to gain assistance from these programs.

Mental Illness/Cognitive Impairments and Homelessness

A much higher percentage of the homeless suffer from severe mental illness than the general population. Mental illness is one of the largest contributing factors in causing homelessness. Not only can mental illness make it difficult for an individual to fulfill career or financial obligations, but it can prevent the individual from forming supportive relationships. Those with severe mental illnesses could become homeless by pushing away family, friends, or caregivers. The mentally ill need more than permanent housing. They also frequently need long term treatment and supervision.

Cognitive impairments are the direct result of the person suffering an injury to the brain, through either trauma or disease. These impairment s affect the individual’s ability to think, speak, or move; they can also affect the individual’s memory function, language, or recognition capabilities. These individuals face many of the same challenges as those with mental illnesses. Difficulty in complying with treatment without supervision, lack of familial support, and being misinterpreted or misunderstood due to their condition are all common obstacles.

Trauma and Homelessness

Many people in need of homeless services assistance have experienced some form of trauma in their lives. Even the experience of homelessness itself can be considered traumatic, and can put trauma survivors at risk of experiencing more traumas in the future. Types of trauma include interpersonal violence (whether experienced directly or witnessed), institutional abuse, sexual abuse, and physical abuse. Neglect can also be a form of trauma, and participation or experience in wars, terrorism events, and natural disasters can also be traumatic.

Special training can help prevent retraumatization and further victimization. Training usually centers around five key principles: safety, trust, choice, cooperation, and empowerment.

Comorbidities and Homelessness

Many of the homeless that workers will encounter will have more than one mental, physical, or addiction related challenge. Homelessness, combined with even one of these significant challenges, can contribute to a multiplication of morbidities. Workers must be prepared to identify and provide resources for comorbid conditions, and learn to prioritize treatment when resources are limited.

Outreach and Homelessness

While it would be ideal for all homeless persons to seek the help they need at various established offices and centers, it’s unrealistic to expect that this will happen. Moving services out of brick and mortar offices into the homeless community itself is called outreach. Nontraditional methods of providing aid to homeless persons can prove to be very effective. However, in order to perform successful outreach, a worker should be trained in establishing rapport, building relationships, setting appropriate boundaries, and motivating clients.

Care Coordination and Homelessness

Homeless individuals often need care from several different services due to comorbid conditions or multiple challenges. However, many of these individuals are not in a position to successfully manage their care with even one such service. Care coordination can be provided by certified workers who are informed about each of the providers the individual is visiting, the services they are using, and their various needs which must be addressed. A care coordinator can ensure that valuable information is, when relevant, shared between providers, and can mediate disagreements over approaches to treatment.

For those who wish to make a commitment to ending homelessness, homeless services training is a necessity. Homelessness is a complex problem, one which has many contributing factors, and which affects the lives of individuals in complex ways. Training helps assistance providers become aware of the common issues facing the homeless. It also helps them learn about the many different strategies, techniques, and services that are available to help their clients overcome these obstacles to having a higher quality of life. Homeless services can be a very rewarding field of work, whether as a volunteer or as a career.

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