Personal Growth Program Guides Homeless Adults to Self-Sufficiency by Repairing Inner Resources


Personal Growth Program Guides Homeless Adults to Self-Sufficiency by Repairing Inner Resources

     Homelessness is a perennial and pervasive condition globally. In developed societies, where plentiful resources exist to ameliorate the condition, the dichotomy can magnify the stigma and intensify the suffering, leading to a vicious cycle of hopelessness. People who are homeless are usually at the lowest point in their lives; besides their homes, they have often lost their jobs and their families. Some find themselves in jail; others might numb their shame and struggle with alcohol or drugs.

Homeless shelters are one way conscientious communities provide a supportive environment to those in need. Together with social services, they offer physical resources such as bed, food, and life-skills training, as well as job placement support and eventually independent housing. However, even while working toward a place to call their own, people who are homeless continue to battle not only the external pressures of putting their lives back in order but the internal effects of trauma, stress, and stigmatization, which can be so overwhelming as to discourage them from taking advantage of the services available to them. Breaking that cycle of hopelessness often requires more than the offering of physical resources; the long journey to self-sufficiency also requires homeless adults to draw on their personal strengths, and yet they often have little or no support to help orient themselves in this way.

Breaking Barriers, Making Choices

For three decades the Institute of Noetic Sciences has studied how people transform their lives. It discovered that while such transformations differ depending on the individual, most experiences share some common characteristics and triggers. Recognizing the immense difficulties faced by those without a place to live, IONS decided to translate its research into a program to support homeless people who have the potential but not always the inner resources to change their circumstances.

In 2005 IONS began collaborating with the Committee on the Shelterless (COTS), a leading provider of homeless services in Petaluma, California, to develop, deliver, and test the effects of a transformational growth program for homeless adults. The project is based on the idea that while homelessness and associated problems of addiction, trauma, poverty, and unemployment can be incredibly disorienting, many of the world’s spiritual and transformative practices point to a place of inner refuge where one can find the resources to change. Some traditions speak of this as a place where people discover not only a personal organizing principle that can direct their lives with a sense of inner authority, but also where they can find shared common ground with others. IONS’ hypothesis is that direct and repeated experience of connecting to that place can have a profound effect on the capacity to overcome barriers and make new choices.

The eight-week program, called “At Home Within” and funded by several private foundations, applies the Institute’s research on personal growth and transformation toward the creation of an intervention that encourages a feeling of being “at home within” while participants seek a home on the outside. Through somatic practices such as walking, stretching, yoga, and tai chi, participants gain body awareness. Through mindfulness practice and an improved understanding of individual learning styles, they gain self-awareness. Through the reestablishment of supportive family and social institutions outside of the homeless shelter, they begin to re-establish cultural stability and a sense of community. And through immersion in nature, they cultivate greater ecological awareness and begin to find meaning in their external environment.


By the end of the pilot study, IONS researchers observed increases in self-awareness and stress management skills, increased social skills and support, and a more solid connection with self and life-purpose. Most importantly, IONS has been contacted by other shelters that would like to implement the “At Home Within” program in their organizations. In response, the Institute is beginning to create a program development toolkit. And IONS continues to research how people change and how profound shifts in consciousness can be supported to make a long-lasting difference in their lives.