Q & A: Why healing services are necessary for homeless/housing support

Published: April 26, 2022

Washington’s families who are experiencing homelessness need more than housing alone to successfully exit homelessness and to maintain long-term housing stability. Introducing healing practices into housing support and homeless services are an important step to holistically addressing and resolving the root causes of homelessness. By supporting families beyond helping them fulfill their most basic needs, we can also address the historical, systemic, institutional, political, and cultural harm done by racial inequities. That is why we are excited to partner with tribes and organizations that will center healing services in their work to support families experiencing homelessness through our new Washington Youth & Families Fund (WYFF) grants.

Edgar LongoriaLeading our WYFF grantmaking strategy focused specifically on programs serving families experiencing homelessness is Edgar Longoria, senior manager of grantmaking and capacity building at Building Changes. Edgar has over 12 years of experience working in the social services field and has a master’s from The Evans School of Public Policy and Governance from the University of Washington. Throughout his career in social work, he has been passionate about exploring and identifying equitable, innovative, and sustainable solutions to homelessness. On a personal level, he understands what it is like to navigate housing systems as a person of color. Edgar experienced homelessness and housing instability growing up in the California Central Valley’s migrant communities. He is also a first-generation immigrant from Mexico who was raised by a single parent. Incorporating culturally appropriate healing services into housing support services is deeply personal to Edgar and he wants to bring healing practices within the field of homelessness. He is excited to expand on his vision for this work and we’ve invited him to share more information about what healing services are, why it matters, and what he is looking forward to by partnering with the newest WYFF grantees, which will be announced this summer.

What exactly is the purpose of healing services?

Incorporating healing services into homeless and housing support services is a holistic approach. The purpose of doing this is to help people release trauma and to help them return to health and wellness. I believe everyone deserves access to healing services. Healing services take into consideration that trauma is historical and that it lives, and remains unaddressed and stagnant, within our bodies. Because of this, we must find ways to heal our trauma through culture, community, belonging, and personal liberation. Trauma can take the shape of historical, institutional, and deeply internalized racism and many of us live and experience the world from that lens of trauma. Healing services can help us tap into our wellbeing by connecting us back to our cultural identity and grounding us with a deeper sense of belonging and self-love. Healing services also give us an opportunity to work towards liberation where we decolonize our minds from harmful societal programming and stereotyped beliefs about who we are or who are supposed to be. The purpose of healing services is to promote our health and wellness at a personal and community level, where we aim to feel whole and grounded in our identity.

Why was it important to include healing services as part of this year’s WYFF application?

When I was working directly with youth and families, I became very aware of the amount of trauma and disconnection that many young people and families had as they struggled with homelessness and with even surviving. One of the things that was very common across almost all the clients I worked with was the prevalence of trauma and its symptoms. As a social worker with over a decade of experience, I thought that we could do more to address the trauma within the homeless population, but I didn’t hear us talking about resolving trauma. It was until I joined racial equity learning circles with peers of color that I heard about healing. Within those spaces, I began to learn about internalized racism and the need for healing.

When I came to Building Changes, I saw that we had an opportunity to make an impact on supporting families experiencing homelessness. I connected with multiple organizations and people with lived experience. One of the first organizations that I connected with was Mother Nation. They were already including healing practices into their work to support families who were transitioning from chronic homelessness and those who experienced gender-based violence. I asked, “Why cultural healing?” and their answer was based on the history of this country and the cultural violence faced by many Indigenous people. For example, they weren’t allowed to practice their customs and traditions, or even speak their languages. U.S. Congress passed federal laws banning Native ceremonies in 1883 and that law was not repealed until 1970. As a result, many Indigenous people lost connections to their history and their ancestral traditions.

I learned that tribes are working to recover cultural practices and to heal from historical harm. I had these conversations with other organizations, and it was very clear that the path toward healing was through culture identity, belonging, and recovering what has been lost. I was really inspired by that at a time when I was working on a personal level to heal my own internalized racial beliefs. Therefore, I decided that based on what I heard and researched through Building Changes, we had an opportunity to use our funding to help families experiencing homelessness explore their healing. We also had an opportunity to bring awareness to organizations about healing services when re-housing families.

What do healing services have to do with homelessness?

In homeless services, we use the Housing First model based on the idea that people need a stable place from which they can thrive. Still, there is a huge turnover of people returning to homelessness even after they attain housing. I believe that is because trauma is prevalent in the homeless population, and it remains unaddressed and unresolved. Healing services speak to the need for more than just housing. We need to not only fund programs that prioritize the Housing First model but also provide services that help people heal from racial trauma. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, humans have innate and essential needs that go beyond shelter and water. We also have qualitative and psychological needs, such as the need to belong, feel respected and esteemed by others, and to feel a sense of purpose. When people participate in healing services, it has the potential for them to stay housed longer because the upper needs of Maslow’s Hierarchy, which speak to belonging and self-love, have also been addressed in housing support. This is why healing services that are culturally based and focused on trauma recovery are needed to ensure families can stay stably housed.

You talked about historical, institutionalized, and internalized racism. How are they related to healing services and why are they needed?

The connection between healing services and racism is internalized oppression, where people of color have internalized harmful beliefs about our personal identity. If you’re white, internalized racism can look like feelings of superiority and a sense of entitlement that is also harmful to self and others, and manifests in feelings of disconnection/divide from other people, especially from people of color. If you’re Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), you may have internalized racial beliefs that you deserve less, that you are less than others, that you are your trauma, or a problem, and that you might even deserve what is happening to you. On the institutional level, it shows up in the form of income inequality, homelessness, incarceration, all these negative outcomes that happen in your life. We see the disproportionate number of BIPOC in homelessness, with chronic disease, high maternal mortality rates, and so many other aspects of our society where race plays a factor. When we heal, we start to become aware of racist programming and internal beliefs. We reconnect with our history, and release the trauma stored within us, in our bodies, so that we can become liberated individuals and communities that no longer carry deep trauma and harmful beliefs. Rather, we learn new ways of being with each other that is based in wholeness, wellbeing, and belonging.

Healing services lean into community by learning from its own people. It can look like learning the traumas you’ve been through and re-experiencing play and relearning how joy feels in the body. It looks like people learning about their culture and their culture’s history, their ancestors, their roots, and the traditions that may have been lost or need to be brought back—there is so much strength there. When individuals and communities do healing work, they will feel an experience of being deeply interconnected and rooted in who they are.

What do healing services look like?

Music, movement, play, and art therapies are some examples of how the body and spirit can meet. Another example could be for people to come together to create sacred and safe spaces where people can be culturally connected with each other and share their stories. Healing services for each community can look vary widely. In the book, “My Grandmother’s Hands,” Resmaa Menakem says that healing racialized trauma must start in the body and many other experts in the fields of psychology, anti-racism, decolonization also speak a similar message about reconnecting with our bodies, so that we may heal. There is also another area of work called “Somatic Experiencing,” introduced by Peter Levine, which is an important type of therapy for trauma recovery, and it also focuses on healing starting in the body. Again, we are working towards healing and learning to live safely and authentically in our bodies, with an expanded awareness of our ability to heal. For some of us, this is very new and we must teach each other along the way because healing can look differently with each community.

Healing services seem like something that should be innately incorporated into support services, so why haven’t they been widely included before?

I don’t think we, in homeless services, were ready. Many of our progression and learnings in social services have finally brought us to this point where we can incorporate healing into everything else that we do to support people experiencing homelessness. As a field, we have leaned into Trauma-Informed Care, an approach social workers use to work with clients. It continues to be used to acknowledge people’s experience, be culturally aware of clients’ backgrounds, be sensitive to clients’ past traumas, and give clients choices and respect. Trauma-Informed Care is a very helpful step, but it does not incorporate practices that foster racial or cultural healing or trauma recovery. It doesn’t go as far as helping people move past and recover from racialized traumas. Healing services approach the trauma directly at the historical, societal, community, and individual level.

Also, I’ll say that the knowledge of healing has come on the heels of racial equity learnings, especially in the last several years. What racial equity work has done in the past decade is to challenge service providers to go beyond cultural competency trainings, to really look at the effects of systems through history and policies. That way, when you’re working with clients, we can support them through a racial equity lens by incorporating racial and cultural healing.

What are you looking forward to by incorporating healing services in this year’s WYFF Request for Proposals?

I’m looking forward to hopefully bringing more financial resources to expand on the healing services body of work. I’m looking forward to the journey of learning and growing alongside the organizations and communities Building Changes will serve through WYFF.

I look forward to one day deepening our knowledge of healing services at the direct service and organizational level, so that healing concepts and practices can be made easily accessible to as many communities and organizations as possible.

For more information about our new grantmaking strategy focused on healing services, please contact Edgar Longoria. The Requests for Proposals for Building Changes’ 2022 statewide funding opportunities through the Washington Youth & Families Fund were released on March 16, and applications are due on May 2. For more information, see Apply for Funding.

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