Addiction and Experiencing Homelessness

Medically Reviewed By: Dr. Patricia Sullivan MD, MPH

addicted and homeless phoenix arizona

Table of Contents

Substance Abuse Leading to Homelessness

Homelessness and drug abuse have been related for a long time, and there is a reason for that. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that nearly 38% of homeless individuals were alcohol dependent while another 26% were addicted to drugs.

 They also found that, in general, older generations experience homelessness and alcohol addiction while young individuals show more reliance on illicit drugs. Alongside this, it’s not common to associate adolescent individuals with homelessness.

 According to data collected by the HCH Clinicians’ Network, between 1 and 1.7 million homeless in the United States are considered youth. One-third of the homeless population is estimated to be 18 to 24 years old.

Because of these high numbers of people becoming addicted, relationships and healthy connections begin disintegrating. The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) found that individuals who are already struggling financially will resort to drug use, leading to homelessness.

 After surveying 25 major cities in 2008, the NCH found that two-thirds of homeless individuals said that drug or alcohol use was the major reason for becoming homeless.

Additionally, the NCH found that being addicted to drugs while homeless is rising for several reasons. Firstly, drug abuse is more often than not a coping mechanism. Many individuals may not have started as substance users but will get involved while living among homeless individuals.

 Secondly, drugs create temporary relief. For many, their problems become too much to bear so using substances help ease their mind. Thirdly, many use substances to fit in with other homeless individuals.

 Since it is common in homeless communities to use addictive substances, being homeless and addicted to drugs can feel like the only course of action. Furthermore, drugs are easily accessible among these populations, making them that much easier to obtain. Breaking the habit of addiction is hard for most people, so when homelessness is added to the equation, it only gets harder.


Treatment is Needed

The NCH found that recovery for most homeless individuals is nearly impossible. It comes from several reasons, primarily based on the lack of access to treatment.

 Addiction is hard to overcome alone, so when basic living essentials are taken away, getting addiction treatment will not happen. The NCH laid out some of the most common reasons why homeless individuals do not get the treatment they need.

  • Survival is more Important – Personal growth takes a back seat for many homeless and addicted to drugs. Finding food and shelter daily will always come first over drug counseling.
  • Poor Relationships – Many homeless individuals have poor to no relationships with family. According to the NCH, many have become estranged from their families, which means they have no support for getting treatment.
  • Relapse – Even if homeless individuals force themselves to give up addictive substances, relapsing is more likely to happen. Without the proper support groups and the constant influence of others around them using drugs, relapse is likely to happen.
  • Wrong Treatment Programs – Many treatment programs focus on the abstinence side of addiction. To get the best results for homeless individuals, harm reduction and avoiding relapse should be considered.
  • Mental Illness – One of the biggest reasons it is hard for homeless people to recover from addiction is the codependency between drugs and mental illness. A vast number of individuals use drugs with undiagnosed mental illnesses, which amplifies the effects of substances. In turn, this makes it harder to give up substances.

Does this sound like your daily struggles? No matter the reason, individuals who are homeless and addicted to drugs should qualify to get help but are struggling to receive it.

 Our society is so fast-moving that these individuals get left behind. Fortunately, some organizations are trying to make a change and help those on the cusp of homelessness.


Challenges for Fixing the Problem

Fixing the current environment surrounding homelessness and drug abuse starts with elected officials creating policies to assist those who need it. It all starts with getting homeless people into treatment that is going to reduce the chance of relapse.

 Setting them up in a safe shelter program can help create a supportive community needed for successful treatment. The NCH found that homeless and housed individuals struggling with a substance use disorder (SUD) are likely not to seek treatment.

 A survey conducted in 2005 found that 19.3 million Americans with SUD did not seek treatment. That number has risen exponentially since then. The cause for this rise is expensive recovery programs and a lack of affordable insurance. Some reasons individuals do not seek help include no access to transportation and the lack of proper documentation.


Akers favor a cheaper, less successful treatment option causing division between those trying to fix the problem. Many policymakers favor a punitive approach to homelessness and drug abuse. Unfortunately, they will not accept that shelter programs are the most effective way to assist individuals.

 Medical and public health officials disagree with how policymakers across the country have handled the homeless and drug abuse problem. Shelter programs are low-cost in the grand scheme of things. Treating and maintaining individuals before they are homeless is both cost-effective and helps reduce the number of homeless individuals.

 The HUD Exchange is also a great source for if you or someone you know is on the verge of homelessness. They are committed to helping individuals with housing and food assistance. By getting in contact with the HUD Exchange, homelessness can be prevented. Similarly, shelter programs are available for those on the verge of homelessness and struggling with substance addiction.

Shelter Programs Can Help

SAMHSA is one of the organizations that are attempting to make a change in the homeless population. They believe that providing shelter can help get individuals get back on their feet and overcome addiction. There are shelter programs across the country implementing mental health and substance treatment.

 By combating both of these issues simultaneously, an individual has a higher success rate of restarting life with lower chances of relapsing in the process. The SAMHSA explains that the shelter programs provide the following:

  • Emergency shelters create a safe space for individuals to experience financial collapse with support management.
  • Shelter programs allow individuals to stay temporarily for up to 24 months to find stability. These shelters also include resources to achieve that stability.
  • There are permanent supportive housing options available for individuals who need more curated support.
  •  Generally, these individuals experience extreme mental illness, SUD, or a severe mix of the two. Oftentimes individuals are required to meet a certain requirement to qualify.

To lower the number of homeless individuals using substances, shelter programs attempt to intervene before they are officially homeless. This method is cost-effective and has a higher success rate of treatment than trying to help someone who is already homeless and addicted to drugs.

 The SAMHSA found that of all the individuals and families that come through shelter programs, only 10 percent have fallen back into homelessness. This success rate can be attributed to providing a safe and secure way to restabilize and create a healthy, supportive community. More proof that these shelter programs help avoid homelessness and drug abuse includes:

  • Stabilizing program for food support. Food stamps and free school lunches are often involved in this program.
  • The benefit advocacy assists individuals in the program, in finding Social Security Disability Insurance, veterans’ benefits, food stamps, childcare assistance, Medicare, and low-income energy assistance.
  • Assistance for individuals being released from institutional care. This includes hospitals, psychiatric care, rehabilitation centers, foster care, jail, prison, or military service.
    Management system to find the best program to fit your needs. This can help you find the right insurance, affordable housing, and other life necessities.

These shelter programs are designed specifically for individuals on the cusp of being homeless. As far as those who are already homeless, other organizations are pushing for policies to help them find housing and affordable treatment for drug and alcohol abuse.


Where to go From Here?

The way society views homeless individuals must change. No matter how you look at it, more people struggle with addiction every day. Being homeless and addicted to drugs should not have to be a fear.

 If you are on the verge of losing your home, consider local shelter programs as a way to restabilize and get back on track. They provide the necessary treatment options to overcome addiction, stay clean and even work on other problems you have, such as mental illness.

Susana Spiegel

Susana Spiegel

Susana has experience writing about addiction, treatment, mental health, and recovery. She holds a Bachelors in Arts of Theology from GCU, and has a deep empathy for those who are struggling with addiction, as she is in recovery herself.

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