Homelessness and addiction have several misconceptions in common. For example, many think people become addicted to substances or become homeless as the result of the “bad choices” they made in life. They may think so-called “homeless drug addicts” are the way they are because of a moral defect or personality flaw.
But anyone with experience in the addiction treatment community understands this isn’t only false, it’s a dangerous oversimplification of the factors that lead to both addiction and a person not having a place to live. These factors tend to overlap — many homeless people are addicts or have struggled with substance abuse, and the opposite is also true.
Clearly, there are significant links between homelessness and addiction. In this piece, we’ll look at this connection, explore the underlying causes, and consider ways to get both of these at-risk populations access to the help they need.
The Correlation Between Addiction and Homelessness
Even without looking at the statistics, it’s easy to imagine the connection between people who are unhoused and those who struggle with substance use disorders.
For example, when a person becomes dependent on drugs or alcohol to function, they start prioritizing getting access to their substance of choice, often above other responsibilities in life. Maybe they get kicked out of the home they shared with their family because of their behavior, or they have to leave an apartment after spending their rent money on drugs or alcohol. People often bounce around between situations where friends and family are willing to take them in before exhausting all their options and ending up on the street.
In the inverse scenario, a person gets trapped in a cycle of poverty. They can’t get a job until they get enough money for a car or bus fare, but they can’t save money until they get a job. People who can’t consistently support themselves or their families for any reason are highly likely to become homeless — often more than once. On the street and in homeless shelters, drug use is extremely common as a way to cope with desperate circumstances.
Clearly, there’s a correlation between these circumstances, but what do the statistics say?
What Percentage of the Homeless Are Drug Addicts?
A report published in 2017 by the National Coalition for the Homeless cited a few key statistics that paint a picture about homelessness and addiction:
- In 2013, it was estimated that just under 260,000 homeless people were also suffering from a mental health issue and/or a substance use disorder.
- Around 38% of homeless people are dependent on alcohol, while 26% abused drugs. (The overlap between drug users and alcohol users is unknown.)
This gives us a snapshot of substance use and homelessness, but it doesn’t paint the whole picture. Here are several myths that proliferate the stigma around the “homeless drug addict” that may keep people from getting access to the help they need:
Myth #1: They Brought This on Themselves
Just as addiction is a disease that can’t be controlled, people don’t choose to be homeless. Because of the stigma around this population, homelessness is degrading and can put people at risk for starvation, violence, worsened health problems, and freezing.
When looked at through the lens of “personal responsibility,” we champion the rare cases of homeless people who succeed in spite of the odds against them. These success stories, although inspirational, make everyday people less likely to support the needs of homeless members of their community.
Myth #2: Homeless People Are Homeless Because of Addiction and Mental Illness
As we showed in the statistics above, this may be true in some cases, but not all of them. Painting this community with such a broad brush overlooks the complex factors that need to be changed to reduce the occurrence of people without access to basic necessities.
Myth #3: Homeless People Are Violent and Dangerous
In reality, the opposite is true. Multiple studies have found that unhoused people are more likely to be the victims of violence and crime than the perpetrators. This isn’t even factoring in the anti-homeless regulations and laws present in many cities and states that either directly or indirectly criminalize people who can’t afford shelter.
These people often end up incarcerated, where they won’t get the help they need. Typically, this worsens the cycle of poverty that contributed to the situation in the first place.
Myth #4: Homeless People Aren’t From Here
There’s a persistent belief that somehow homeless populations are people from other places than the communities where they reside. In fact, surveys have shown that between 70% and 80% unhoused people stay in the area where they lived previously.
Approaching Substance Abuse and Homelessness Together
It may seem counterintuitive to talk about helping the homeless and those addicted to drugs or alcohol in the same breath. After all, we just explored why the idea that everyone who’s homeless is a drug addict isn’t accurate.
But the fact remains that many factors that lead to homelessness are the same factors that lead to substance abuse issues. For example, people who experience trauma when they’re children are more likely to experience both homelessness and addiction.
There’s no simple solution for homeless and addiction, but the approach that’s proven most successful is a combination of broader access to treatment and a wider net of social support.
Communities need to understand the damage that stigmatizing and criminalizing homelessness is doing to the unhoused population in their own backyard. Public housing grants and mutual aid programs have been shown to reduce homelessness by giving people the support they need to get back on their feet.
Reducing Risk Factors With FHE Health
One way to reduce homeless and addiction together is to increase the resources people can access to get help before things spiral out of control. At FHE Health, we offer inpatient and outpatient treatment for those suffering from substance abuse and mental health issues that provide necessary intervention before these issues can compound and become more extensive.
To learn more about how we’re supporting those who need help in our community and beyond, contact us today.