Enterprise’s Housing as a Pathway to Justice (H2J) initiative explores the intersection of housing and the criminal legal system. The initiative strives to understand the core barriers that exist, identify opportunities to improve equity for justice involved individuals, and keep up with new ways of thinking about and approaching the gaps that exist for these individuals. 

In this third part in our series on the intersection of housing and the criminal legal system, we examine trauma-informed care as a lens to better support the needs of justice-involved individuals as they navigate the housing system. Read our first and second post.

What is a trauma-informed approach?

In recent years, the term “trauma-informed” has become a common term in the housing provider field. What does this term trauma mean? According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “Trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” 

Trauma-informed care (TIC) refers to a program, organization, or system that understands the widespread impact of trauma and potential paths for recovery; recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system; responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and seeks to actively resist traumatization.  Trauma-informed care asks “what happened to you?” rather than “what is wrong with you?” A trauma informed approach is a lens that is used for recipients of help, but also practitioners through practices, policies and procedures that put people first.  

Why are trauma-informed care and services important for justice-involved individuals?

Research has shown that prisons and jails are traumatizing places where people have to navigate “constant surveillance, social isolation, limited personal care services, ongoing harassment, and threats of violence and abuse.” This is particularly concerning as one in 3 three adults in the U.S. have an incarceration, conviction, or arrest record. 

Upon being released, those with involvement in the criminal legal system experience additional barriers that can be traumatizing as they are often excluded from employment opportunities, experience pervasive housing discrimination, and have restricted access to social services. As a result, formerly incarcerated people are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless, and experience recidivism.

Housing providers and social service providers agree that adopting a trauma-informed approach is critical towards helping residents with a justice-involved background re-enter society successfully and often cite TIC as key in reducing recidivism rates organizationally. A report by the Center for Institutional and Social Change, suggests that trauma informed support is not only crucial for successful re-entry, but also in supporting those who are justice-involved to become leaders in advocating for others through their lived experience. Without that [trauma-informed] support, individuals who make it to the change agent phase of their transition are more likely to experience setbacks.

How can housing providers adopt a trauma-informed approach?

Social service providers have traditionally implemented this practice into housing by training staff to engage residents through a trauma-informed approach. Other common methods for implementation include offering optional services to residents such as harm reduction, workforce development, as well as revising organizational screening and operation policies to ensure that they aid re-entry rather than create additional barriers for residents. 

Organizations such as Design Justice + Designing Spaces (DJDS) and Second Chance Center have practiced new methods to implement a trauma-informed approach through building design to create spaces in which residents feel safe and stable. DJDS reported that “Through architecture practice, restorative justice education, and quantitative and qualitative research, DJDS has begun to explore what a trauma-informed architecture grounded in restorative justice would look like and amplify the outcomes of those trauma-informed practices.”

Applying a trauma-informed approach

Housing developers and service providers play a critical role in supporting re-entry, reducing recidivism, and preventing interaction with the criminal legal system. There are several ways to begin implementing a trauma-informed approach into your organization’s housing operations. To begin, here are a few suggestions:

  • Identify opportunities for increased resident input in decision-making processes.
  • Re-evaluate organizational policies/procedures to ensure they aid successful re-entry rather than create additional barriers.
  • Invest in staff training to ensure that those who directly engage with residents regularly have a trauma-informed approach.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of organizational supports on successful re-entry.
  • Support the expansion of services and service partnerships for non-supportive housing.
  • Reform criminal background check policies to prevent housing discrimination against people with conviction records and allow them equal access to safe and stable housing.

For further resources on how your organization, company, or agency can begin implementing a trauma-informed approach, please view our session on Prioritizing a Human-Centered Approach or the Preservation of Affordable Housing Trauma-Informed Toolkit. 

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