Professor explores ‘hardened’ exterior of homeless

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, Laura Huey met a woman who, in the words of the Western Sociology professor, scared the hell out of her graduate students.

“She was about 58 years old, grew up around gangs, had been around gangs her whole life. She was still somewhat gang-affiliated and she would cut you, as soon as she would look at you – that’s how she came across,” Huey said.

“But we connected because I approached without any judgment. I would laugh with her about things, and what happened is, she let her guard down. That’s when she started to talk about some of the things she had seen and the effect it had on her,” she continued.

Huey recently published a paper in The Journal of Interpersonal Violence out of that trip to Los Angeles entitled, There Is No Strength in Emotions: The Role of Street Enculturation in Influencing How Victimized Homeless Women Speak About Violence. The paper is the result of a qualitative study featuring interviews with more than 200 homeless women in the southern California metropolis.

Joined by a handful of graduate students, Huey made four trips, speaking to women in shelters, focusing on the Skid Row district. The project’s focus was resiliency and looking at what services are available to help homeless women foster resiliency.

What Huey and her students found was a group of marginalized, heavily victimized women who, regardless of services available to them, self-imposed an image of not only resiliency, but also extreme toughness.

“I have been studying homeless women in Chicago and Detroit, and we had a good idea we would find a pretty traumatized population. That’s exactly what we found,” Huey said.

“But we also found women used different coping skills. They don’t have their HMO plan sending them to the best psychiatrists to deal with whatever their issues may be, so they find whatever coping mechanisms are available to them,” she added.

The ‘hardened’ exterior presented by some homeless women increased with the amount of time spent on the street, Huey found. It’s not a necessarily surprising revelation, but one that comes with great implications in the provision of social services, she explained.

“The more time you spend in the street environment, you realize it’s either ‘eat or be eaten.’ You start to build up that tough shell. And when you’re in a really tough environment, and you’re someone who’s heavily traumatized and vulnerable, one of the things you tap into is your ability to put on a façade of being very tough – because if you don’t, you’re prey. That façade is what you are initially greeted with,” she said.

When these women seek social services, this facade poses an obstacle on both sides, Huey explained. The women – often for good reasons – are reluctant to let down their guard to counselors who could help. Because they appear hardened, counselors might not take the time to get to know the women and create a space in which they feel comfortable enough to open up.

“When they get to know you and they connect with you, (the facade) drops. That’s when you start to see what’s actually going on underneath. Some of these women get labeled with these psychological labels like ‘anti-social personality,’ and so on, because they don’t trust anyone. But if you expect somebody’s going to open up to you right away, you’re crazy,” Huey explained.

“You have to understand: If you are coming from a place of privilege and they are not, how you ask the questions and what your demeanor is could probably shut people down. They’re not going to think you can relate to them.”

The implications of her findings apply to how we approach and try to understand the problems of disenfranchised women, she went on. Though there may be a tendency to assign blame or assume these women are not being forthright with social service providers, there needs to be a renewed and concentrated focus on creating spaces in which women feel comfortable and safe to let their guard down.

“Maybe they won’t tell you their problems because you’re too judgmental, or you don’t think about how you come across, and you’re not cognoscent of how to bond and create empathy,” Huey speculated.

“We think that because these women are accessing services, the trade off is they should give us what we ask for. Sometimes, they’ve trusted people who have gossiped about them, misused information they had given and sometimes the distrust is based on past experiences where they felt they got burned,” she continued.

“At the end of the day, this is about empathy and thinking about how we connect to other people. You need to think about what image you’re presenting and how you’re connecting. You need to train people to think about those things.”