Skid Row: Homelessness and Addiction

Homelessness and drug and alcohol addiction is not a new phenomenon.  The stereotypical belief that drug and alcohol abuse causes homelessness runs rampant due to the portrayal of homeless people on television and in the movies and campaigns by major cities that encourage people to give to homeless charities rather than the homeless people themselves to prevent the money being used for drugs. 

But, as advocates for the homeless remind us, addiction and homelessness are related in complex ways. For many homeless people, drug or alcohol addiction is indeed the primary reason for their lost jobs and homes. Many other addicted homeless do not turn to drugs and alcohol until they are on the streets, and many addicts never experience homelessness.  

In the past decade, city governments such as those in New York (NY), Portland (OR), and Tulsa and Oklahoma City (OK), alongside the federal government have recognized the costs and dangers associated with homeless addicts.  Visits to emergency rooms, arrests and jail stays, and nights in temporary shelters can cost cities tens of thousands of dollars per homeless person every year. 

How many homeless are addicted to drugs and alcohol?

In the United States, a disproportionate number of homeless people struggle with alcohol and drug addictions. It is, however, difficult to determine the exact numbers of homeless who suffer from substance abuse and addiction. 

Because of the transitory nature of homelessness and the self-reporting requirements of substance abuse, many people are not included in statistics. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that 38% of homeless people are addicted to alcohol and 26% to other drugs. In contrast, the National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that only 15% of the population reported drug use in the past year and 8% noted drug use in the past month. 

According to “Substance Abuse: Pathways to Homelessness?  Or a Way of Adapting to Streetlife?” published in Visions: BC’s Mental Health and Addictions Journal, two-thirds of homeless people blame substance abuse for their homelessness. 

“Substance Abuse,” however, also explains that many people become addicted once they are on the streets. Some homeless turn to drugs and alcohol to fit into the homeless culture and others use drugs to self-medicate for other mental illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. 

What obstacles do homeless people encounter seeking treatment for abuse?

Despite the disproportionate number of addicted homeless people on American streets, even those who want to quit find it difficult to obtain adequate treatment for their addictions.  Many homeless people suffer from   

  • A lack of health insurance
  • A lack of documentation
  • A lack of transportation to treatment facilities and meetings like those held by Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous
  • A lack of support services, and
  • An unsupportive environment surrounded by other addicts

In addition to these problems, if homeless addicts are able to find a treatment program, there is often a waiting list of more than a year, making it difficult for addicts to wait for treatment and live on the streets at the same time. 

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