In the United States, over half a million people are homeless at any given time. You have probably passed by a homeless person while walking to work; maybe you have seen a person begging for money near the entrance to a store. Maybe you give him or her some of your pocket change or a few extra dollars. Perhaps you simply passed by them, believing that any money you gave to them would only go toward fueling liquor or drug habits.
It’s easy to stereotype homeless people as alcoholics or junkies. The truth, however, isn’t nearly so straightforward. Does a person’s substance abuse cause homelessness, or does being homeless make a person more likely to abuse drugs? Either situation is possible. For most people, however, many other circumstances beyond drug or alcohol abuse contribute to homelessness.
How does homelessness relate to drug or alcohol addiction? What other factors come into play? How can a person who is currently living on the streets and struggling with addiction get the support and treatment they need to once again regain control of their lives? This is a complicated issue that differs for each person who goes through it.
Choose any section heading below to skip directly to the corresponding information in this article:
- Understanding addiction
- Information on homelessness
- Addiction and homelessness
- Housing resources
- Addiction treatment options
- Getting help
Addiction has the power to destroy lives. It can take everything a person holds dear. Nothing is safe: relationships, careers, and even one’s primary source of shelter. The downward spiral of addiction can start small. It may begin with some family issues caused by a drinking problem or excessive absences from work as you pursue drugs instead of your main responsibilities. As the disease (yes, addiction is a disease) progresses, your marriage may fall apart. You may lose your job due to an increase in absences or a severe decrease in performance. The stress of life continues to mount. Soon, it may seem that the only way to cope is by using more drugs or alcohol. Unfortunately, the problems only continue to get worse and worse.
At its most basic level, addiction is a mental health disorder fueled by obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. A person may start using drugs or alcohol socially or recreationally. The pleasurable effects are a result of changes in the brain’s chemistry; drugs or alcohol essentially hijack the brain’s reward center. Soon, the brain learns to associate these substances with pleasure. Other activities and pursuits that were once meaningful take a backseat to using drugs or alcohol.
Eventually, a person’s thoughts become completely fixated on drug use. These obsessive thoughts only seem to be calmed by using (the compulsive behavior). For example, say someone likes to enjoy a few drinks right after work every day. As this enjoyment develops into an addiction, they may find themselves thinking about heading to the bar for a drink a few hours before their shift is over. The thoughts become so prevalent that the person can almost taste the drink and feel the buzz it brings. By the time their workday ends, the individual is practically on autopilot as they head to the bar, reach a barstool, and order a drink. A few drinks might turn into a couple more. The night becomes a blur, and the person is lucky to get home at all. When morning comes, the thoughts of the next drink return.
In time, drugs or alcohol become the sole focus of a person’s life. Despite losing everything, they continue to use. The destructive cycle seems impossible to break. They may lose their family, career, and home as the addiction progresses. The life the person used to have is only a hazy memory that seems impossible to get back.
Of course, not everyone suffering from addiction deals with homelessness. It is often a combination of other issues and circumstances that leads to such dire conditions.
Information About Homelessness
Homelessness has several definitions. Although one may think it is a person living on the street or in a temporary shelter, there are other categories according to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. They include:
- Literally Homeless: Individuals or families who lack regular and adequate nighttime residence. This includes those sleeping in a public place, shelter, or motel funded by the government or charitable organizations. These individuals can also be about to exit an institution, such as a correctional or mental health facility, where they resided for over 90 days.
- Imminent Risk of Homelessness: Individuals or families who will lose their primary nighttime residence within 14 days. They have no future housing lined up or the resources to obtain permanent housing.
- Homeless Under Other Federal Statutes: Families or unaccompanied youth under 25 years old who have consistent housing instability in the past 60 days and foreseeable future.
- Fleeing and Attempting to Flee Dangerous Situations: Any individuals or families that have escaped or are attempting to escape domestic violence, sexual abuse, and other life-threatening conditions.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, on a single night in 2018, a total of 552,830 people were homeless. Of those people, about 33% were families and children. People who are at a higher risk of losing their main source of shelter include youth under 25 living on their own, veterans, chronically homeless people, and individuals with disabilities or mental health conditions. The states that have the highest rate of homelessness are California, Hawaii, New York, and Oregon.
According to a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, the main contributing factors that lead to families living on the streets are a lack of affordable housing, unemployment, poverty, and low wages.
The top causes among individuals are very similar; however, mental illness and addiction may also play a role. In many cases, these individuals don’t have the motivation to connect with services that treat addiction and mental illness.
For women in particular, domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness.
Addiction and Homelessness
It’s difficult to accurately determine how many homeless people struggle with addiction to drugs or alcohol. For many, it is a temporary situation. They may fall on hard times or are just in between jobs. Sooner or later, they find a place to live. This may be done on their own or with the help of social service organizations.
The relation between addiction and homelessness is complicated. There is not a single, clear-cut answer. Oftentimes, these conditions feed off each other and get fueled by other precipitating factors. Let’s take a look at a few examples:
Bob is stuck in a low wage job and has difficulty supporting his family. The bills keep piling up, and home life is filled with arguments about finances. To deal with the stress, Bob has a few drinks each evening. It doesn’t help his problems, but it seems to take the edge off. Soon, the drinking gets more frequent. It’s an easy escape. Bob ignores calls from creditors and threats of eviction. Family life becomes even tenser, so Bob retreats to drinking instead of taking measures to improve his family’s situation. His work attendance and performance becomes erratic, and eventually, he is fired. He has no way to pay the rent and provide shelter for his family.
From an early age, Lynn dealt with physical and mental abuse from her father. In her late teens, she left home to get away from the abuse. She stayed with friends or the occasional boyfriend. Without any resources or support to cope with the trauma, she turned to drugs to help dull the inner turmoil. As she bounced from place to place, her drug use intensified. The instability and high-risk behaviors surrounding drug use that she engaged in caused more trauma and furthered her addiction. She was unable to develop the positive life skills needed to improve her situation. Instead, she continued on a path of self-destruction.
Nick was a hard worker with a decent job. Unfortunately, the company he worked for downsized, and he lost his job. At first, he was motivated to find work, but he just couldn’t find a job to support the lifestyle he was used to. Unemployment checks couldn’t pay his bills, and he found himself living in his car. He wanted to work, but the daily struggle to find food and shelter became a priority. He turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with the stress and embarrassment of his situation. This behavior quickly spun out of control, preventing him from establishing a productive life for himself.
After leaving the military, Brad struggled with substance abuse and mental illness. Luckily, he had a support network and the necessary resources to deal with these issues and get sober. However, a series of difficult personal events led to a relapse. As a result, he stopped taking his prescription medications. His behavior became erratic and unpredictable. He lost his job and alienated his close family members and friends. Instead of using the resources available to him, he fled his hometown in search of a new start. Unfortunately, his fractured plans at rebuilding his life dissolved as his mental illness and substance abuse became more pervasive. He soon found himself begging for change in an unfamiliar place with no idea about how to find help.
As you can see from these examples, addiction can either be the cause or result of homelessness. A recent report from the National Coalition for the Homeless provided some startling facts about substance abuse and homelessness. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that almost 40% of homeless individuals are dependent on alcohol, and over a quarter of them abuse other drugs. These rates are much higher than the general population, where 8% of adults deal with substance abuse issues.
Housing Options for the Homeless
People with unsafe living environments or who do not have immediate access to housing may need support from a temporary shelter. If you are in this situation or know someone who is, get in contact with the local shelter system in your community. Most locations have emergency services that help with temporary, transitional, or permanent housing. In addition, you may have access to programs that can help you or your loved one access food and health care.
Many communities offer a 2-1-1 hotline where trained staff can connect a homeless or imminently homeless person or family with available resources.
You may be able to access the Continuum of Care (CoC) network in your area to help find affordable housing and other assistance.
Of course, someone dealing with homelessness may not have access to a computer or cell phone. A nearby County Department of Human or Social Services, church, library, community food pantry, or non-profit social service agency may be able to help. Any of these places can provide the crucial first step towards finding emergency housing.
Aside from emergency shelters, people can also learn how to gain access to affordable housing through the Housing Choice Voucher Program, sometimes known as Section 8, or federally funded public housing.
People dealing with domestic violence can consult the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
Young people that are homeless or on the run can call the National Runaway Safeline at 1-800-786-2929.
Addiction Treatment Options for Homeless Individuals
Finding safe shelter is often the first step. Of course, if the root causes that led to a homeless individual’s troubles aren’t treated, he or she may fall into the same patterns that initially caused the loss of housing.
Addiction treatment can be a great resource to help a person develop a better understanding of how his or her thoughts, perspectives, and dependence on substances can have a negative impact. Without access to health insurance, a person’s options for treatment can be limited. In addition, many individuals dealing with homelessness have low motivation to change due to the desperation of their situation. Sometimes this can also be due to a lack of awareness of available resources.
By connecting with some of the services listed above, however, an individual can gain access to addiction and mental health treatment. This can include publicly sponsored programs and case management, in which a homeless person has a dedicated contact person to guide him or her toward medically-supervised detox, drug treatment programs, dual diagnosis programs, counseling, and 12-step meetings.
These programs usually offer assistance with transportation and regular visits with a counselor. Some even offer occupational skills training, which may open the door to a job and economic security.
The First Step is Asking for Help
Many people have trouble asking for help. They feel that if they can survive each day then somehow, they will be okay. Unfortunately, without help, this is not always the case. Accidental overdoses, physical or sexual violence, and entering the criminal justice system are all common problems for homeless individuals who are dealing with substance abuse.
Making a simple call or dropping by a social service center can be the life-changing moment that you need to get your life back. Rebuilding your life will take time and effort, but each difficult step will bring you that much closer to the life you deserve.