At a surface level it is easy to see why creating spaces specifically for the people who will be served in them is beneficial. But under the surface, there is more to this. Maybe you have heard the term epigenetics. This is a very overlooked concept in the general public when they are looking homelessness in the eye in their communities.


By Holly Herring


I was recently involved in a discussion about a new emergency homeless shelter that is going to open.

I was relieved to hear that the city had interviewed local experts on homelessness before completing the shelter design. Those experts are the people who have been experiencing homelessness in that city—not service providers.

This is a very important area to have cultural humility in. When we propose building solutions to someone else’s challenges, it’s important that we ask those we propose the service to how we can best serve them. In this city in particular, these interviews produced some information they hadn’t been prepared to address, until they heard from individuals.

We have a label for people, and it’s an ugly label, who refuse services when offered. That label is Service-Resistant.

As it turns out, a large population of people labeled “service resistant” in this city belonged to a particular Native American tribe. In general, the people with ancestry in this tribe have not wished to stay in this city’s emergency shelters or receive direct services from their homelessness service providers.

During these interviews with people living on the streets who self identified as members of this tribe stated that when they went to these emergency shelter spaces they felt uncomfortable, like outsiders. There were signs in a couple languages, but not in their language.

There were spaces for healing, but not the kind of healing that members of this tribe feel comfortable receiving. When they looked at the faces of the staff, they saw unfamiliar features and they heard statements from them that they couldn’t identify with. In short, these people did not feel welcomed.

The design of the shelter then took on some modifications. Signage was created in this tribe’s native tongue, recruitment began for new staff members who are members of this tribe, and there was a space created specifically for healing modalities that feel safe and address the whole person—just like members of that tribe knows is effective for them.

At a surface level it is easy to see why creating spaces specifically for the people who will be served in them is beneficial. But under the surface, there is more to this. Maybe you have heard the term epigenetics. This is a very overlooked concept in the general public when they are looking homelessness in the eye in their communities. When I speak at events and workshops I generally bring up that I believe strongly that homelessness is a symptom, along with other societal challenges, of something much larger and that systemic racism and abuse contributes to homelessness and all of its satellite issues in big, giant, buckets.

Now hold on tight because I am about to start talking science.

Epigenetics is a study of how environmental influences can affect the expression of an individual’s genes. This explains how a person’s experiences can have more than a lifelong effect, they can affect generations further down the line. When we discuss epigenetics we are talking about how certain experiences an individual has can turn a gene “on” or “off.”

This plays a big role when you are meeting with a family who has multiple children who share the same two biological parents and who all grew up in the exact same household, yet they are so different. When you see identical twins and know they are working off the same DNA but these two individuals are—well—individuals who are different from one another.

This is epigenetics. The Nature Vs Nurture debate can be settled with “both.”

Researchers at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University released a study in 2013 on generations of mice. The researchers took mice and exposed them to the odor of acetophenone, which smells somewhat like cherry blossom, and accompanied it with an electric shock to the feet.

Next the researchers measured how much of a startle response the mouse had when a sudden loud noise was introduced and again in conjunction with the introduction of the odor. When the mice smelled the odor and the noise was introduced, the startle response was stronger than the loud noise without the odor.

The researchers bred those mice. The offspring—and the second generation offspring—also startled more in response to that odor without ever having been exposed to that odor before. In addition to this, the offspring were more able to detect that particular odor in smaller quantities.

They bred the original mice and then bred some control mice, who had not been exposed to the shocks with the odor, and they had the mice foster each other’s litters. The genetic descendants of the mice who experienced the shocks still had the amplified startle response when in the presence of the odor even if they were parented by the control mice.

Trauma is in our genes.

People who have experienced racism, violence, and other abuses experience changes in their DNA and that gets passed down to future generations who might not experience the same type of trauma, but who will experience similar effects.

This is why we must be compassionate.

It is pretty standard in social services to have heard the analogy of an iceberg and relate it to how people are behaving. As a ship sailing around in frigid oceans you understand when the ship identifies an iceberg, they are only seeing a small portion of that iceberg. What lies beneath the surface is almost always larger and more of a risk to the ship than what is seen above the surface.

When a person tells me they don’t want to go to a shelter or they don’t want the option I am presenting to them, I am seeing the tip of an iceberg. What lies beneath the surface of that answer is likely bigger and scarier than anything I am imagining – and the person saying “no” might not even fully understand the depth as well. This is when being effective at providing a service to my community members is demonstrated with all the compassion I can muster.

Earlier I wrote about people with a specific Native American ancestry who had been labeled “Service Resistant” and how a city finally asked them what they could to get them to say “yes” to receiving emergency shelter services. I called the label Service Resistant ugly, and it is.

But I think the real problem is that it’s a short sighted term and it lacks the compassion and depth needed to work with people who are vulnerable. We have taken a service and boxed it up, a “one-size-fits-all” shelter experience, but we forgot to ask the people what a helpful service looks like to them. Then we slapped a negative label on them and we move on to the next group.

We call that next group, “those who help themselves,” which sounds much more positive and we pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.

Let your love be the kindness to make a homeless person believe that a soul needs something more than just four walls and a ceiling.

– Munia Khan

Photo: Pixabay


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