The Relationship Between Addiction and Homelessness

Homelessness and addiction often go hand-in-hand. To say that one always leads to the other is an oversimplification. Though they’re connected issues, understanding their relationship to one another is vital to helping addicts and the homeless population on an individual and societal level.

To explore the hard facts of addiction and homelessness, let’s examine some statistical data and stereotypes. By shining a light on the homeless addict, we can better help him or her.

Addiction As A Reason For Homelessness

The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that at the beginning of 2020, about 580,000 Americans suffered from homelessness. Reasons for homelessness include:

  • Poverty. People living paycheck-to-paycheck don’t have the means to keep up with bills, especially when emergencies arise.
  • Fewer work opportunities. Lay-offs and a declining relationship between the cost of living and wages leave people hopeless.
  • Housing. The cost of housing often vastly outpaces wage increases.
  • Unaffordable healthcare. Even middle- to upper-class families struggle to pay for complex medical procedures.
  • Domestic violence. People that rely on family members for money and shelter are often left helpless when fleeing from domestic violence.
  • Mental illness. Without proper healthcare and support systems, people with mental illnesses are often incapable of finding treatment.

Addiction, like every reason listed above, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It can be the primary reason for an individual’s homelessness, but it’s often more complex than that.

Family circumstances, neurological triggers and genetic predispositions make people prone to addiction. While many people are driven from their homes by substance abuse, it’s not often the root of the issue.

Addiction plays into many factors that cause homelessness. Likewise, factors that lead to homelessness create the perfect conditions for addiction.

Homelessness As A Reason For Addiction

If addiction isn’t often the primary reason for homelessness, can homelessness be the primary reason for addiction? Let’s explore some statistics to answer this complex question.

In 2019, the Association of American Medical Colleges reported that 21 million Americans battled addiction. Using census data, the American population that year was about 329 million. That means about 6% of the population suffers from addiction in one form or another.

However, according to a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, survey, about 35% of homeless people in shelters have substance abuse problems. What’s the reason for such a startlingly high statistic?

The homeless population lives in a reality many of us could not imagine. Every day, they:

  • Must rely on shelters and charities for food and safety or have none at all
  • Have no access to healthcare for chronic diseases and mental illness
  • Are isolated from family and friends
  • Face discrimination most places they go
  • Have few job prospects
  • Witness or suffer from violence as the result of desperation

While many of us unwind in the comfort of our own homes after trying days, the homeless population has no such comfort. Drugs and alcohol offer a cheap, convenient solution to hunger pangs and depression. Substance abuse may be a short-term solution to long-term problems, but that’s often all the homeless have.

Mental Illness: A Troubling Factor in the Equation

Among the many factors that drive homeless people to substance abuse, mental illness is perhaps the most dangerous and prevalent.

The SAMHSA report referenced earlier states that about 30% of homeless people have mental health disorders. Of that number, half also have co-occurring substance abuse problems. Mental health, substance abuse and homelessness are a recipe for hopelessness.

This is perhaps linked to the reasons people are homeless in the first place. The homeless population has less access to resources and no means to get help.

While resources for mentally-ill homeless addicts exist, homeless people often don’t have strong support networks. For functioning addicts and alcoholics that still have friends, families and homes, their loved ones can encourage them to seek treatment. Just as importantly, they may also help them fund treatment.

For an isolated, mentally-ill homeless person, there is no support or outside motivation. Faced with mental illness and the searing pain of poverty, they may turn to illicit substances for comfort and self-medication.

The Homeless Addict: Why Is It a Prevalent Stereotype?

All of these problems create one thing in the public consciousness — the stereotype of the homeless addict. However, if 35% of homeless people battle substance abuse, that means 65% do not. Why does the minority, though it’s a large one, drive public perception of the homeless?

The answer lies in the human brain. To categorize different groups, whether they’re objects or people, we use patterns. Because homeless, mentally-ill addicts are often the most noticeable, they become representative of the homeless population as a whole. They’re seen as the rule rather than the exception.

The truth is that many homeless people are virtually invisible. They’re teens, children, families and individuals living in shelters and somewhat safe public spaces. They may look like:

  • Families at public campgrounds
  • Patients in busy emergency room waiting areas
  • People staying at motels

These spaces are just temporary shelter. People passing them may think they’re having fun or going about their normal daily lives. In fact, they’re looking for food and somewhere safe to stay.

Helping Homeless Addicts

These facts paint a grim picture for homeless addicts, but there is always hope. Their families and loved ones, no matter how distant, can play an important role in their recovery.

At Inland Detox of Riverside County, we help people bring their homeless and addicted loved ones back into the fold. Because our programs include treatments for dual diagnoses, we provide a holistic approach to the challenges of homelessness and addiction. In our residential substance abuse center, formerly homeless addicts receive the intense therapy and life skills coaching they need to succeed.To find out how our diverse, professional and caring team can help you or a loved one, contact us today.