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UAlbany Study Explores Treatment for Root Causes of Homelessness

May 11, 2009



Woman raising hand in a class at COTS.

Homeless agencies like the Committee on the Shelterless (COTS) in Petaluma, Calif., incorporate Larkin's research into providing services that address root causes of homelessness. (Photo courtesy of COTS)

A new study by a University at Albany researcher provides hope for treating the root causes of homelessness. School of Social Welfare Assistant Professor Heather Larkin surveyed 185 homeless adults at homeless agencies in Albany, N.Y., and in Petaluma, Calif., and found they reported a high level of childhood trauma.

Larkin is working with homeless agencies – including the Committee on the Shelterless (COTS) in Petaluma – to fine tune services to address the lasting effects of abuse and neglect on a person's life.

More than 85 percent of the homeless respondents reported having experienced at least one of 10 categories of adverse childhood experiences (ACE). Many (52.4 percent) had experienced more than four categories of traumatic events when growing up.

"Dr. Larkin's research provides much-needed insight into the underlying causes of homelessness and suggests productive approaches to addressing root causes," said COTS Executive Director John Records.

Larkin has built on the work of principal investigators Dr. Vincent Felitti of Kaiser Permanente and Dr. Rob Anda from the Centers for Disease Control, who in 1998 found that middleclass adults who were abused and neglected as children suffered from higher rates of addiction, depression, and non-infectious physical diseases as adults. The original study found that more than half the respondents had experienced at least one category of adverse childhood trauma.

"ACEs have a developmentally disabling effect on children that quite literally generates a biopsychosocial pathway that includes poor school performance, issues with employment and job performance, homelessness, poverty, and imprisonment,” said Anda. “Larkin's research on ACEs and homelessness is an important marker of progress that will destigmatize all of these interrelated biosocial problems and lead to progress in understanding their root origins in the experiences of childhood. These are necessary steps in the process of public health approaches to their prevention."

School of Social Welfare Assistant Professor Heather Larkin

School of Social Welfare Assistant Professor Heather Larkin's research suggests new approaches to treating the root causes of homelessness.   

Felitti will be a guest speaker at an ACE Think Tank and Action Team Meeting on May 14 at 2 p.m. in Milne 200 on the downtown UAlbany campus.

Traumatic childhood experiences can have a powerful negative effect well into adulthood. Felitti and Anda found that having an ACE Score of 4 means a person is 460 percent more likely to be experiencing depression and 1,220 percent more likely to attempt suicide than someone with an ACE Score of 0. In addition, high rates of childhood trauma have also been linked to an increased risk for liver disease, chronic lung disease, cancer, and ischemic heart disease.

Larkin’s hope is that the stigma of homelessness will dissipate, once it is more widely understood that many homeless people have shown great resiliency after childhood traumas like losing a parent, being sexually abused, or having a loved one commit suicide.

"People with high ACE scores may be more vulnerable to economic downtowns that lead to homelessness, so helping homeless people includes support in overall healing in addition to finding shelter and a job," said Larkin.

Greater coordination among agencies, less fragmentation, and an integrated approach to comprehensive treatment are part of the solution, she said.


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