We all have internal threat detectors. To experience yours, simply lean out over a cliff or peer down from a high-rise building. Even imagining it will often activate that inner mechanism. Threat detection is the job of the limbic system of the brain. The limbic system controls our “fight/flight/freeze” response to threat.
The limbic system is a grouping of neuron clusters that acts like a thermostat. When the thermostat is set on “low,” it takes a larger perceived threat to activate it. When the thermostat is set on “high,” it takes very little perceived threat to trigger a response.
Those experiencing homelessness often arrive on our campuses with their threat detectors stuck on high. Consider that they have just been mauled by the consequences of harmful choices, either theirs or someone else’s. In either case, they arrive on high alert, presuming further threat lies behind each encounter.
This condition is not a choice. It is the natural result of trauma. In this condition, any nudge toward a new direction will be seen as a threat. Until we can readjust the thermostat, not much else can be achieved.
Don came to us in survival mode direct from prison. He presented as defensive, harsh and demanding. Nearly every conversation was seen by him as adversarial. He assumed we were a threat to his survival.
Our first goal with Don was to win his trust. This meant delaying any redirection until he knew we were on his side. It took about three months to readjust the thermostat in Don’s limbic system. Today, Don has settled into a path that will get him where he needs to be.
Understanding Don’s condition helped the staff not to personalize his aggression. Don was not the villain. He was the victim of brain chemistry. Don is not the exception, but the rule.
I give high marks to the staff at UGM of Salem because they genuinely care for those whose lives have been derailed into homelessness. That care eventually wins the battle for trust.
This work cannot be done as a job. It is a calling.