‘Root Shock’ and the psychological toll of displacement

When someone is forced from their home, whether by rising rent, eviction or a community that grows unaffordable, the consequences are tangible and life-changing. The Centers for Disease Control considers gentrification, defined as“the transformation of neighborhoods from low to high value,” to have several negative outcomes for the displaced. This includes dramatically longer commutes and decreased access to health services, if not homelessness.

But the mental health effects of displacement are often overlooked.

At a homeless encampment in Westlake, one man, who didn’t want to use his name for fear of attracting police attention, said he remembered the emotional pain of losing his home.

“It’s mental torment,” he recalled, describing the feeling of being forced onto the streets. He said his mother passed away four years ago and he couldn’t pay the rent.

That torment is what Dr. Mindy Fullilove, psychiatrist and professor of Urban Policy and Health at The New School, calls root shock, or the “traumatic stress response to losing all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem.” Fullilove has spent decades studying how we invest in the places we inhabit and what happens to our minds when we suddenly are forced to leave.

“Place attachment is a real thing,” she said, “and when you lose a home, it’s not just your own house. The house is set in a place.”

According to Fullilove’s research, being torn from the community of people and locations to which we’ve grown attached results in palpable mental and emotional damage.

“The experience includes lots of anxiety, depression, and anger, prominently. The trick is that the anxiety and depression and anger [are] attached to a story of leaving a home.”

Fullilove called the housing situation in Los Angeles, where skyrocketing rent affects much of the city, a “rolling catastrophe.”

“It destabilizes the whole place,” she said. “The political organization, the social organization – the kind of fundamentals that help people know and trust each other get ripped apart.”

Tenants citywide face crushing rental prices that continue to rise, leaving entire neighborhoods susceptible to root shock. Zillow, an online real estate marketplace, recently estimated that a 2 percent increase in median rent across LA would force over 700 individuals onto the streets. Median rent in the city rose 2 percent in just the first month of 2017.

Though the wheels of this rolling catastrophe are spinning feverishly, Fullilove sees ways to mitigate root shock.

She points to three levels of prevention to help curb the lasting psychological effects of widespread root shock. The first level is stopping displacement before it occurs. According to Fullilove, public policy must create affordable units for low-income renters and must resist dramatic neighborhood change. She notes, however, that perpetual displacement and associated root shock erode political organization, making it difficult to successfully lobby for these measures.

Fullilove’s second level of prevention involves caring for the immediate emotional and physical needs of those who are displaced. Goodwill organizations like nonprofits, shelters, and faith-based groups perform much of this work.

Absent the first two, the third level of prevention is adjustment: building connections in a new environment or restoring the integrity of a fragmented community. Few organizations or government entities directly address this need, but a more widespread acknowledgement of root shock may spur the development of such programs.

For Los Angeles renters currently on the financial verge, little relief is in sight. There are 40,000 people on the waitlist for Section 8 housing, which provides housing subsidies to low income renters. Last month, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles began accepting new applicants for the first time in over a decade. It expected 600,000 applicants to apply for the 20,000 available units.

For the homeless man in Westlake, Section 8 didn’t seem like a viable option. He said he was not going to apply even though his tent was located across the street from the Housing Authority. Without housing, he will continue to face uncertainty on the streets like thousands of others across LA.

However, there is a natural tendency to form community and defend against some of the torment of root shock. “We look out for each other,” he said, motioning to the makeshift shelters nearby. “If someone leaves, we’ll watch their stuff. It’s almost like a community.”

What is Root Shock?

(Photo: haymarketrebel)