Written By: Fiona Stockard

Homelessness and Addiction: Is There a Common Thread?

Often, the homeless population is viewed as being comprised of alcoholics and addicts. While this assumption is often true (about 38% of homeless people were dependent on alcohol and 26% abused other drugs[1]), other stigmas sometimes make for a skewed view of the homeless. For example, when alcoholism and addiction is viewed as a moral choice, all subsequent consequences are viewed as that person’s fault. This scapegoating allows the public to view homelessness and addiction as the person’s own fault. However, this view is pretty simplistic. Conditions leading into poverty are often complex and escaping poverty can be a huge challenge.

homelessness and addiction

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Homeless Addicts Didn’t Choose This Life

Substance abuse is often the cause of people becoming homeless addicts. Alcoholism and addiction can be a cause for someone to lose their job. For someone who’s living pay-check to pay-check, the loss of a job quickly leads to the loss of their housing as well. In 2008, a survey by the United States Conference of Mayors asked twenty-five cities for the top causes of homelessness. Substance abuse was the largest cause of homelessness for single adults (reported by 68% of cities). It was also mentioned by 12% of cities as one of the top three causes of homelessness in families. Approximately two-thirds of homeless people report that drugs and/or alcohol were a major reason for their becoming homeless[2].

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Homelessness and Drug Use or Drug Use and Homelessness?

In many situations, substance abuse is a result of homelessness rather than its cause. People who’re homeless often turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with their situations[3]. Alcohol and other substances are used as a temporary relief to their problems. As with all relief provided by drugs, the abuse usually worsens the problem. In this situation, drug and alcohol use makes it more difficult to achieve stable employment, and thus, stable housing. Self-fulfilling prophecies may occur as well. This is when a young person, growing up in poverty, turns to drugs and alcohol to cope with their undignified living situation. In turn, using drugs and alcohol limit their chances to overcome poverty. In this way, they might become homeless addicts themselves.

Mental Illnesses Contribute Greatly

For many stuck in the downward spiral of homelessness and addiction, substance abuse co-occurs with other mental illnesses. People with untreated mental illness often turn to street drugs as a form of self-medication. Mental illness is one more obstacle to recovery, especially when left untreated. Mental illness often leads to a perpetual cycle from the streets, to jails, and psychiatric institutions.

It can be especially hard for homeless people to recover from addiction as their motivation to stop using may be inadequate. For many homeless, things like finding food and shelter are seen as a priority over drug abuse treatment or counseling[4]. Finally, many homeless have become estranged from their families and friends. They have no social-support network, an essential for recovery.

The Cause and Effect

As substance abuse is both a cause and result of homelessness, both issues need to be addressed simultaneously. In order for a homeless person to recover from addiction it’s important to give them support services once their treatment has been completed. In fact, stable housing during and after drug treatment decreases the risk of relapse[5]. Additionally, when providing a housing community for those who’re homeless, it’s essential that one of the services provided be a substance abuse service. Otherwise, achieving goals like steady employment and housing may be impossible.

[1] National Coalition for the Homeless. ‘Substance Abuse and Homelessness’. July 2009. Web.

[2] National Coalition for the Homeless. ‘Substance Abuse and Homelessness’. July 2009. Web.

[3] National Coalition for the Homeless. ‘Substance Abuse and Homelessness’. July 2009. Web.

[4] National Coalition for the Homeless. ‘Substance Abuse and Homelessness’. July 2009. Web.

[5] National Coalition for the Homeless. ‘Substance Abuse and Homelessness’. July 2009. Web.

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