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The Hidden Connection Between Trauma and Homelessness

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The Hidden Connection Between Trauma and Homelessness

Karina Wallace’s story shares a common thread with many others struggling with housing insecurity: childhood trauma.

September 25, 2017

Every single person that is homeless is suffering from trauma.

–Rex Hohlbein, Facing Homelessness


If you live in or near Seattle, you’ve probably been to Gas Works Park, home to sweeping skyline views and vintage industrial structures. It’s also home to a large number of young people experiencing homelessness who camp there because of the amenities and shelter it offers.

Karina Wallace was one of those young people. For three years on and off, she slept in a car in the parking lot with her boyfriend, or camped out in one of the park’s picnic shelters. Her life took on a routine of avoiding the police (who would sometimes give her tickets for not moving her car), finding money for food and figuring out where to change or shower.  

It’s easy to dismiss youth like Karina as drug addicts or simply “others” who are not relatable. But Karina's story reveals extreme trauma suffered at an early age halfway across the globe. Karina Wallace, pictured with her adoptive mother, was just shy of 8 years old when her mother finalized her adoption.

Karina was born in Tomsk, Russia. Her mother struggled with alcohoism and was abusive to Karina, sometimes leaving her to fend for herself for days at a time.

“She didn’t have the money to support me for food so she would teach me how to steal,” Karina says.

When she was 5 years old, a social services agency took Karina to an orphanage. She was transferred to another orphanage a couple of months later.

“There were a lot of terrible things going on behind the scenes with the staff and the kids there, like sexual abuse and physical abuse,” she says. 

Karina was just shy of 8 years old when she was finally adopted. She had been living at the orphanage for almost three years and — like thousands of other Russian children adopted in the 1990s — she faced a lifetime of challenges rooted in the abuse and neglect she had experienced before her adoption.

A picture of children at one of the orphanages that Karina spent part of her childhood in. Note: Faces have been blurred for privacy.

Trauma experienced as a child can have dangerous consequences as people grow into adolescents. According to a 2002 study from the University of Toronto, childhood neglect can lead to poor impulse control, social withdrawal, problems with coping and regulating emotions, low self-esteem; pathological behaviors such as tics, tantrums, stealing and self-punishment; poor intellectual function and low academic achievement.

Karina showed signs of some of these difficulties. Shortly after her adoption, she was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Reactive Attachment Disorder. Studies show that children with Reactive Attachment Disorder have trouble bonding and are more likely to engage in dangerous behaviors. These behaviors emerged shortly after Karina turned 12 years old.

“It was bad, but I started to use drugs and running away,” Karina said. “I didn’t think I should have any rules and I think I scared the crap out of my mom.”

Karina’s adoptive mother, Andrea Wallace, said she would drive around at night looking for her daughter. Stealing also became an issue. To Karina, stealing was a survival tactic taught to her at a young age. To Karina, stealing meant a good day — it meant food.

Events came to a head shortly after Karina’s 18th birthday.

“She stole all my family heirlooms and my mother’s diamond ring,” says Andrea. “ I’d finally had it and I was willing to say goodbye to her forever.”

Andrea told Karina that she had to leave. Karina and her boyfriend packed up and headed to Gas Works Park.

Rex Hohlbein founded the organization Facing Homelessness, a nonprofit that shares images and stories of people experiencing homelessness on its facebook page and facilitates donations. Rex has met many “Karinas” throughout his career.

“I would say every single person that is homeless is suffering from trauma,” he says —  “either trauma brought them to homelessness or just living through homelessness is traumatic.”

In fact, according to research published by the American Public Health Association, 75 percent of homeless women report some form of childhood abuse and/or neglect.

Hohlbein works directly with people experiencing homelessness and says he sees the effects of trauma on a daily basis.

“It’s important to remember that this person is not operating from the same base of security and comfort as us,” he says. “They’re going through their own form of mental health and we have to be sensitive and patient.”

For Karina, support from the community and her mother has helped her to address her mental health challenges. She is now enrolled in Shoreline Community College and has been living in a transitional housing apartment for almost two years. She is also working to mend her relationship with her mother.

“I think a common misconception people have is that homeless people choose to be out there and struggling with things that they do,” says Karina. “The truth is, sometimes it’s a mental thing and there’s always room for change.”

Visit Facing Homelessness on Facebook to read first-hand stories from people facing housing insecurity.  


Stacey Jenkins

Stacey Jenkins is the managing producer of Spark Public. She is an Emmy-award winning producer who is passionate about pushing the boundaries of digital media and training the next generation of multimedia journalists. Stacey has been a Digital Content Producer at KCTS 9 for the past four years; her stories have been showcased locally on IN Close as well as nationally on SciTech Now and the PBS NewsHour's Art Beat. Stacey’s experience also includes working as a senior producer for KPTS, as an assistant media instructor and producer for Portland Community College and a TV news reporter for the CBC in Canada.

Fun Fact: Stacey’s guilty pleasures include over-the-top Halloween decor, eating sweetened condensed milk straight from the can and Maroon 5’s “Sugar” video.

More stories by Stacey Jenkins

Jen Germain

Jen Germain is a media producer with the Creative Services team at Cascade Public Media, helping to drive brand and programming initiatives. Previously, Jen worked as a producer with Spark Public, where she helped lead digital strategy and mentor a team of millennial multimedia journalists. Find her on Twitter @jengermain. 

More stories by Jen Germain