Homeless people, by definition do not have a fixed residence, but that is where the simplicity ends.
“A 2008 survey by the U.S conference of mayors asked 25 cities for their top three causes of homelessness. Drug abuse was the largest single cause of homelessness for single adults reported by 68% of cities.”
Homelessness & Substance Use Disorder Treatment (2010)
Drug abuse and homelessness is a sort of chicken and egg debate not only because of its age and importance but because either can result in either one i.e. someone can become homeless as a result of chronic drug use or a homeless person can become dependent on drugs as a result of homelessness and being exposed to chronic drug use and or just the day to day stresses of being homeless can drive someone to substance abuse.
It may seem strange but it actually quite common that stress often results in substance abuse for normal people as a form of self medication, to relieve said stresses but this can result in a loss of family/jobs/friends/home etc. Drug use is more prevalent in homeless people; Homeless people could have been normal people that lost control of their casual self medication of drug use but also the opposite can be true. The homelessness could be the result of something completely non-substance abuse related, like just getting out of prison or being made redundant and the actual stress of being homeless can result in drug use.
Conventional wisdom might question that, and say something along the lines of; ‘what do homeless people have to be stressed about?’ they don’t have a job or kids or a mortgage, deadlines, debts, but homeless people stress about staying alive.
Homeless people worry about finding a safe bed for the night, they stress about not having their shoes stolen while they sleep. They stress about where their next meal comes from, they worry about staying warm in the winter and they stress about abuse inflicted on them by the general public, all of which are reason enough to try and distance yourself from the real world with drugs and alcohol.
The homeless population has exploded recently as hundreds of people have lost their jobs and their homes and become homeless as a result of the recent and ongoing financial crash and then living life on the street where drugs are cheap and nasty and dangerous become dependent on drugs as a means to forget the day to day misery of their existence. The fact of the matter is nothing divides normal people from homeless people, there’s no specific type of person that becomes homeless, everyone has the potential to become homeless, if you have a home you can lose it, everyone has something to lose.
Recent surveys have shown that 20 to 25% of homeless people are actually military veterans. This for example is the stress brought on by combat resulting in self medication of drugs and alcohol and thus results in loss of a permanent domicile, distancing themselves from friends’ families due to shame or guilt. Post traumatic stress disorder has been the result in many a case of homelessness either through drink and drugs or just psychological trauma caused by traumatic events that make it impossible for that person to function in the ‘normal’ world.
We now all share a duty to our men and women who serve overseas to ensure that soldiers who as a result of engaging in combat develop mental illnesses are properly taken care of as it results in great stress on their family and on their country.
Homeless women who have children have their children taken into foster care, then when the children leave foster care they then become homeless themselves and are exposed to drugs, thus repeating the cycle of homelessness and dependency on drugs and alcohol.
As I mentioned above mental illness is a major factor affecting the number of homeless people on the street. In fact 20% of homeless people are defined as mentally ill and almost two thirds have substance abuse problems either as a result of their mental illness used as a form of self medication for their mental illness or in some cases drug use can cause mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Supportive housing is one solution to deal with homeless people that can allow a homeless person to remain sober but for how long?
Young people on the street, either runaways or gay lesbian children often lack the same support networks that adult homeless receive so can slip through the cracks and although they form peer support groups these young people can turn to substance abuse as a support mechanism or an escape from the trauma of being homeless and being rejected. (H. Westley Clark)
Homeless people can often suffer from what is known as a ‘Co-occurring use disorder’ this basically suggests that someone who has a substance abuse problem may also have a reoccurring mental disorder and the two could in fact be feeding into each other. This as you can imagine, can make it very hard to treat, because you can treat them for the chemical addiction but not the underlying mental problems.
Personality disorders like depression often lead to substance abuse as a coping method which can then lead to homelessness and vice versa, i.e. homelessness can cause depression resulting in drug use being used as a coping method. (Jesse B. Milby Ph.D)
Even phobias can interfere with people’s ability to function in the world and could lead to drug abuse and homelessness.
Also many homeless people have medical problems that go untreated and pain or distress from these problems can also lead to self medication using drugs or alcohol.
One of Birmingham’s substance abuse programs more innovative ideas is Abstinent contingent housing, which involves giving the homeless person a house and food as long as they supply a clean urine specimen and active participating in treatment. If they don’t, remain clean they have to leave the housing and go back into shelters but then they try the process again until they understand they can have a life without drug use. (Jesse B. Milby Ph.D)
People take drugs to avoid problems, treatment programs try to make people confront these problems thus removing their dependency on substances.
Homelessness costs the tax payer a lot of money because their substance abuse can either land them in the emergency room or jail, both are very costly. (Jesse B. Milby Ph.D)
Drug abuse and Homelessness is actually one of the leading causes of death in America, so it’s not just about helping people find homes and get into recovery it’s about saving people’s lives and saving the country from destroying itself physically and financially.
“There are strong links between substance misuse and homelessness. Drug users are seven times more likely to be homeless than the general population, and research suggests that two thirds of individuals report increasing problems with substance misuse after becoming homeless. Homeless people using drugs may face a range of problems in accessing appropriate support to address their substance misuse.”
Homeless link (2012)
Homeless link conducted surveys on the homeless community and found that substance abuse was one of the main issues affecting the users of homelessness services. They found that 58% of hostels had reported that a large amount of their patrons had drug problems. 31% of second stage accommodation projects reported similar statistics.
In the Documentary film Street Vets issues surround the trauma of the not only the conflict of the Vietnam War but also the negative reception of the soldiers returning from that war by the American public are discussed. Both of these traumas lead many a Vietnam veteran to substance abuse and this in turn can lead to losing their homes and families.
These veterans have such bad memories; they don’t want to face their demons so they turn to drink and drugs to hide from their problems.
Conventional wisdom dictates that the homeless are unskilled and uneducated but the homeless veteran fellowship has found just the opposite. It’s just they don’t know what to do so they stay drunk or high because they don’t think they have any options.
In a survey conducted by the fellowship it was found that 60% of the homeless veteran fellowship had fallen victim to an addiction to drugs or alcohol resulting in their homelessness.
It’s not as simple as people think to quit drinking or taking drugs, the body becomes chemically dependent on those substances and getting off them can be really dangerous and challenging.
They get to a point where they don’t care about their problems or they don’t want to care, they get so low they can’t get up without help; they just get lower and lower until they drink themselves to death.
Homeless people are labelled as ‘druggies’ or ‘drunks’ and ‘crazies’ and that’s why they’re on the street but the truth is they’re just people that need help, the phrase ‘no wounded left behind’ is not just physical, these people are spiritually and emotionally wounded.
Soldiers returning from Vietnam felt betrayed because of the way the news media portrayed them, they didn’t fight in a ‘popular war’, and they became monsters and outcasts in their own home.
Their public reception was an anti-climax, these people are returning from hell and then they’re treated like demons, they begin to feel ashamed of their uniform and their country and that shame can force them to turn to substance abuse.
Imagine an eighteen year old goes to war and kills people because that’s what he thinks he should be doing for his country and then he returns home and his country turns its back on him, that psychological damage is just insurmountable.
The trauma of war is enough but to have that complete lack of support just compounds the problem of substance abuse. When everyone looks down on you it’s even easier to look down on yourself.
Can a person have pride when they’re doing nothing? Employers don’t want your baggage, failure to them is depressing, we praise the people who win in our society but the losers fade into obscurity and turn to drugs and alcohol to try and forget.
According to DARA (Drug and Alcohol Rehab Asia) Homelessness is often associated with substance abuse. They state that although these problems are prevalent throughout the homeless community to say that they have a direct link is not necessarily correct.
DARA claims that most addicts do not become homeless and most homeless people are not addicted to substances. A large majority of western countries have seen a rise in homelessness and it would be rather short sighted to say that this is all caused by substance abuse.
Homelessness isn’t really as simple as drugs make people homeless or homeless people do drugs, homelessness is a complex issue and its occurrence is equally complex and solving the problem isn’t as easy as just overcoming an addiction.
Some people may turn to drugs as a coping method of not having a fixed abode but it comes back to this chicken and egg concept as it’s almost impossible to determine the frequency of whether drug use leads to homelessness or if it’s more likely that homelessness leads to drug use.
DARA attempts to list common causes of homelessness that are not in fact linked with drug use such as;
- Divorce or other relationship breakdown
- Mental illness
- No local affordable housing
- Rent arrears
- Escaping an abusive home
- Those individuals who previously had housing in the army or other institution
- Failure to receive child support
- A personal tragedy or post traumatic stress disorder
- Natural Disaster victims
- Released inmates
- Inability to get social assistance
- Domestic violence victims
- A wage that is too low to pay for housing
- Poor physical health
- Those individuals who have been socially excluded
- Physical disabilities
- Family breakdowns
- Lack of affordable health care
- Debt problems
Although drug abuse may play a part in their homelessness it’s just a piece of a much larger problem.
Homeless people are seen as outcasts and although most cities try to provide for their homeless population the problem shows no signs of it going away.
J is for Junkie is a documentary about crack addiction causing homelessness in Georgia. People sacrifice homes and families and normal lives to feed their crack addiction.
Drug culture is so prevalent in the U.S, dealers become addicts become homeless, they can happen in any order but they happen.
One person turned to crack as a way to cope with her mother’s death at the hands of inexperienced medical interns who improperly prescribed drugs to her. So in this case you can argue that the trauma caused her drug abuse which resulted in her homelessness but you could also argue that these people fall out of love with the system they live in.
That they’re homelessness or their drug abuse is almost a rational choice to drop out of mainstream culture or society as a whole and live a life that is not a part of that broken system.
A homeless man relates the story of how he came to be homeless. This man lost his wife and child when a seventeen year old female drunk driver caused a car accident which ended their lives. The drunk driver got three years’ probation and the husband hearing that verdict tried to kill the girl in the courtroom and got twenty years in prison.
So he got twenty years for trying to kill one person while this girl got three years probation for actually killing two people driving drunk.
He just got out of prison which is why he’s homeless, he has a part time job but it’s not enough. He sleeps on the streets because if he sleeps in the shelters his clothes are stolen, he got some money together got a shave, and some work boots but one night in a shelter and they were gone.
So this results in not only someone who is institutionalised by the prison system but someone that is literally victimised by the system that is supposed to protect us. This has fostered in this man a feeling of hatred for the system and for society as a whole, and these feelings have lead him to feel alienated in his own country.
This interestingly enough is about someone who has done drugs but is not an addict but was made homeless by a chain of events set into motions by a normal person who was driving drunk and the system that failed to recognise that person’s culpability for the lost lives of this man’s family.
So this was a man who was certainly dealt a bad hand but then the court system failed him for not punishing his family’s killer sufficiently and instead punishing him for attempting to take revenge driven temporarily insane by the verdict, giving him twenty years in prison.
Then the prison system fails him releasing him onto the streets with nothing, with no option but homelessness and then when he seeks help from the homeless shelters he’s robbed but still he does not turn to substance abuse.
Some of these people on the street were raised into drug culture, their mothers and fathers were addicts and they just passed it on, all they know is drugs, so all they do is try to score drugs and the nature of addiction is everything else is secondary to feeding that hunger. So family ties, possession, homes are all forfeit, they’re all less important than the next hit of drugs or alcohol.
What good are all the family services or drug rehabilitation clinics if they can’t stop drug addicted parents passing that addiction onto their kids and creating the next generation of homeless junkies?
Some of these people are homeless because the government tears down their homes, then they turn to drugs.
Larry Huff, the President of Samaritan Inns a non profit organization specializing in getting homeless people into housing talks about the causes of homelessness and tries to answer the chicken and egg argument regarding drug abuse and homelessness.
“Unemployment or under employment results in homelessness. Additionally, people who have some physical or mental disorder cannot get help otherwise so they find themselves on the streets. Substance abuse is also a cause for homelessness. And in some cases, a very small percentage of people choose to live an alternative lifestyle and remain homeless.”
Larry Huff (President of Samaritan Inns 2011)
He then goes onto to argue that generally drug abuse leads to homelessness; “I think it’s safe to say that addiction comes first. If a person is a homeless addict, most likely they became homeless because of their addiction.” (Huff 2011)
So there you have it, but is it really that simple, can we really overlook our economic situation and the nature of capitalist competition and uncaring employers?
Addiction Blog (2011) Drug and alcohol abuse and the homeless
Cooke, D. (2007) Homelessness a cause, not a result of drug abuse. Retrieved from
Davis, C. (2011). J is for Junkie. Retrieved from
DARA. (2008). Homelessness and Substance Abuse. Retrieved from
Didenko, E. (2007) Substance Use: Pathways to homelessness? Or a way of adapting to street
life? Retrieved from
Grinman, M.N (2010) Drug problems among homeless individuals in Toronto, Canada:
prevalence, drugs of choice, and relation to health status. Retrieved from
Goeckeritz, I. (2011). Street Vets – PBS. Retrieved from
Homeless Link (2012) Drugs. Retrieved from
Johnson, G. (1997) Homelessness and substance use: which comes first? Retrieved from
Join Together Staff (2012) Nurses Can Help Reduce Substance Abuse in Homeless Youth,
Study Finds. Retrieved from
Katz, J. I. (1998) Homelessness, Crime mental illness and substance abuse. Retrieved from
Kolata, G. (1989) Drug Addicts Among the Homeless: Case Studies of Some 'Lost Dreams'
National Coalition for the Homeless. (2009) Substance abuse and Homelessness. Retrieved
National Institute on Drug Abuse (2013) Overdose Deaths Among Homeless Persons.
Paquette, K. (2011) Current Statistics on the Prevalence and Characteristics of People
Experiencing Homelessness in the United States. Retrieved from
Pleace, N. (2008). Effective Services for Substance Misuse and Homelessness in
Scotland: Evidence from an International Review. Retrieved from
Robertson, M.J (1997) Drug use disorders and treatment contact among homeless adults in
Alameda County, California.
Sacks-Jones, K. (2001). Homelessness the Silent Killer. Retrieved from
Schmalleger, F. (2012). Criminology today: An integrative introduction (6th ed.).
Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
T, B. (2004) Substance Abuse Growing in Homeless Population. Retrieved from
Torres, I. A. (2010). Homelessness & Substance Use Disorder Treatment. Retrieved from
Treatment Solutions (2010)Homelessness and Substance Abuse. Retrieved from
United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (2013) Substance Abuse. Retrieved from
Wincup, E. (2003) Youth homelessness and substance use: report to the drugs and alcohol
research unit. Retrieved from
Wyman, J.R (1997) Drug Abuse Among Runaway and Homeless Youths Calls for Focused
Outreach Solutions. Retrieved from