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Healing For The Homeless: Men Talk Trauma At Springfield Shelter

Mary Hansen
Curt Everly participates in the trauma support group that Meghan Golden, an SIU social worker, leads at Helping Hands shelter in Springfield.

Keith Treadwell says it took some time for him to talk about the trauma experienced. The 46-year-old lives in Springfield and is part of the supportive housing program with Helping Hands.

“I took advantage of the help that they have there and got an apartment with a roommate,” he said. “And my life has been looking up ever since.”

Treadwell says he’s struggled with homelessness and a drug addiction for a few years. But he’s been clean for nearly a year now and is studying ministry at a local church.

One offer of help is a support group focused on trauma at the shelter. He was nervous at first about sharing, not knowing how the other men would react to his story.

But after he did: “I felt a weight lifted up until that time, it felt like I had been carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders," he said.

Root causes

The group aims to break the cycle of persistent homelessness, where men stay at the shelter, get help and find housing, only to end up back months later, said Meghan Golden. She is a clinical social worker with SIU Medicine who leads the group. She leads a similar group for women experiencing homelessness at SIU Center for Family Medicine.

“Because of these cycles that happen, the cycle of addiction, the cycle of self-sabotage, we realized part of the reason that happens is because we're treating the branches and not the roots,” Golden said. “So we want to get to those root causes.”

The root cause, she says, is often related to trauma. That could be anything from an isolated event - like losing your home in a fire or natural disaster - to interpersonal conflict or violence that played out over the course of several years, like child abuse or domestic abuse. Golden says even being homeless can be a form of trauma.

Addressing trauma is different from other therapeutic approaches that treat anxiety or depression, and often the symptoms are different.

“Flashbacks, nightmares, difficulty maintaining good relationships, hypervigilance, where they're looking over their shoulder all the time,” Golden said. “There's a lot of different ways I think trauma can affect people.”

Usually about ten shelter residents gather on Tuesday nights in the conference room of the shelter. Golden will lead discussions on relapse prevention, healthy relationships or coping mechanisms.

They’ve been meeting since April, and attendance is voluntary. Helping Hands contracts with SIU Medicine for Golden to run the group, and pays for it with money from a state grant, according to Erica Smith, executive director of the nonprofit.

She said men at the shelter asked to start the group after some SIU medicine students ran workshops and discussion about trauma and did screening for post-traumatic stress syndrome.

“What a lot of people don’t realize about homelessness is it’s very isolating,” she said. Many residents have lost their homes, jobs and connection with family members. “This is in some ways their community and family, and to give them the opportunity to have a safe place to connect with each other in a healthy way – that’s incredible.”

Power of the group

Curt Everly, who’s staying at Helping Hands, often convinces his friends or even newcomers to the shelter to come with him to the meetings. He tells them, “It just might be useful if you have something on your mind. You know, you ain’t got say anything about your past or anything.”

Everly says he’s found others who share his struggles and even picked up a new coping mechanism - coloring.

“I can relate to some of them,” he said. “Me and another guy we color a lot, and try to define our issues so we don't get so mad, angry, so quick.”

Golden says sometimes it’s easier to understand the link between trauma and unhealthy behaviors, like substance abuse, when people hear it from others in a similar situation. And that’s the power of the group sessions.

“It's not enough for me to come in and sit in an office with them, and try to help them see that,” she said. “Maybe a friend shares a story that they connect with, like ‘I really want to stop living in the past, I really want to stop having this experience define me.’ They hear that from someone that they relate to, and that's really healing.”

Treadwell said it’s helped him open up more.

“It causes me to care about what other people are going through, to hear their stories,” he said. “A lot of times, my heart will go up to them, and I can relate with some of their stories.”

Golden said once the men leave the shelter and stop going to group sessions, she hopes they continue individual therapy. Though she acknowledges there is a need for better access to mental health services in Springfield.

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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