Sep 19, 2019 | By John Ferreira

The Correlation Between Addiction and Homelessness

Addiction Resources

homeless woman on the street

Substance abuse has remained a long-standing issue throughout the United States. At any given moment there are tens of millions of US citizens struggling with drug addiction issues. Some of these people will be able to maintain jobs and pay their bills. There are others who may lose their jobs and find themselves in bad debt due to their substance abuse issues, but they have family or friends to fall back on. Then there are those whose addiction has spiraled out of control and have lost everything as a result. Any bridge this person had has been burnt and now they have found themselves in a very difficult situation. There can be a strong correlation between addiction and homelessness. Their addiction has led them to be homeless and the light at the end of the tunnel can feel like it is a million miles away.

In the United States, there were over 525,000 homeless people in 2017. The population of homeless Americans is growing every year, especially among young people aged 18-30. Addiction and homeless and become synonymous with each other due to the fact that homelessness is often the end consequence of substance abuse. Though, we are in no way saying that all homeless people are in their current situation due to addiction issues. The National Homeless Coalition discovered that nearly 40% of homeless individuals are dependent on alcohol, and 26% are physically and mentally dependent on narcotic substances.

Being homeless is often a consequence of years of substance abuse issues, but it also goes the other way. There are homeless people who never struggled with substance abuse, but due to their living situation, they turned to drugs and/or alcohol as a form of relief. Being homeless is an extremely stressful way to live life. There are hard circumstances of living on the streets; having to find food, fighting health-related issues, worrying about your safety, and being looked down by society can have some serious mental repercussions. In reaction to the severe lifestyle of feeling threatened by violence, hunger, and the absence of shelter and love, individuals suffering from homelessness may turn to drugs and/or alcohol for relief.

Addiction and Homelessness

In most cases, homelessness is a temporary circumstance in their life, it is not a permanent condition and should not define who a person is. If you are able to look at it from that view, the amount of homeless individuals is very fluid–not static, as some people believe. In time, this population is determined by a moment, not as a constant. Defining who is “homeless” can actually differ significantly varying on the person you ask, on the source, and context used. Typically, society as a whole defines the homeless as those who lack a true home. Not all homeless people are beggars, and not all homeless people are addicts or alcoholics. 

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there are around 750,000 people who are considered homeless in the United States on any given night. The circumstances for homelessness takes a variety of forms. There is the one that most people envision when they hear the term homelessness. The people who are unsheltered and are therefore living on the streets, camping outdoors, in homeless shelters or who live abandoned buildings or their car. Then there are those who are considered sheltered, they live in emergency shelters or transitional housing. Then there are those who are staying with family or friends, couch surfing until they are no longer welcomed and move to the next home. Unsheltered homeless people suffer disproportionately from all health problems when compared to the rest of the population, and drug abuse and addiction is not an exception.

About one-third of homeless people abuse narcotic substances, and drug abuse among young homeless people in the United States is more prevalent than older homeless. Older homeless people tend to abuse alcohol at a higher rate than young homeless. A survey was done with the United States Conference of Mayors regarding those cities and their homeless population. There were twenty-five different towns and cities that partook in this survey who shared their region’s top reasons for homelessness. Nearly 70% of those surveyed stated that the number one reason for drug abuse among single adults was homelessness. Two-thirds of the homeless surveyed, indicated that drug and/or alcohol abuse was a significant cause of their homelessness, according to this study. For homeless military veterans suffering from a substance use disorder, very comparable figures are recorded.

Mental Health Issues and Homelessness

Homelessness, mental health issues, and addiction tend to go hand in hand. A large portion of people who struggle with untreated mental health issues also struggles with addiction. Recent reports suggest that 20-25% of homeless people suffer from severe mental health issues such as schizophrenia. Most professionals agree that mental illness is a major cause of homelessness, which then often leads to drug and alcohol abuse. Poor mental health, particularly for homeless people, can also influence physical health. Mental illness can cause individuals to not worry about self-care which leads to them not taking the required disease precautions. This can lead to physical issues such as respiratory infections, skin illnesses, tuberculosis, or HIV exposure when coupled with insufficient hygiene that comes with homelessness. Furthermore, half of the mentally ill homeless population in the United States also suffers from drug abuse and reliance according to Substance Abuse and Administration of Mental Health Services (SAMHSA).

Serious mental illnesses interfere with one’s ability to perform vital elements of everyday life, such as self-care, full-time employment, and household management. Mental illnesses can also discourage individuals from forming and retaining stable relationships in their lives. It can also lead individuals to misinterpret and respond irrationally to the advice of others. This often leads to driving away caregivers, family, and friends who may be the force that prevents that individual from becoming homeless. Because of these variables and the stresses of living with a mental disorder, individuals with mental illnesses are much more probable than the general population to become homeless. 

Common mental disorders the homeless struggle with include, schizoaffective disorder, PTSD,  major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, paranoia, delusions, schizophrenia, and severe anxiety. Many people who abuse drugs do so as a way to self medicate their mental health problems. Someone who is homeless will have very little if any, access to professional medical help; so they turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with their issues. In relation to suffering from mental illness, homeless people suffering from mental illness are more probable to be victims of violence. Those who struggle with substance abuse and mental health issues are in need of help from dual diagnosis rehab centers. These facilities treat co-occurring disorders that combine mental disorders and substance abuse. While it may seem that drug and alcohol abuse can help ease challenging mental issues, in the long run, it only makes things much worse.

A dual diagnosis treatment center understands that substance abuse is just the surface issue that the outside world can see. The core roots of addiction often go far deeper than what others are able to view. Many people who struggle with substance abuse start experimenting with substances due to underlying mental health issues. It is important that these problems are addressed while in a rehab center or the risk of relapse will rise significantly. 

The Rise of Young Homeless People

Many homeless adolescents and young adults struggle with substance abuse issues. Those homeless people who are between the ages of 12 and 17 have a higher risk of becoming homeless than adults. Many of the people in this age group who are homeless are victims of severe physical and/or mental abuse. There are a variety of factors that can lead to a young person becoming homeless. Some have run away from home due to their home environment. They may have been sexually abused on a regular basis by a family member or come from a broken home where drugs and violence are rampant. The teen then decided that they would rather be risk being homeless than living in that household.  Then there are kids who are abducted or considered “throwaways”. These people often experience severe trauma and will often turn to drugs and/or alcohol as a way to cope.

There are a variety of factors that contribute to the risk of a youth being homeless and struggling with substance abuse. Some people are born into that world, their parents are homeless and that is the hand they have been dealt. These kids have a very high risk of developing substance abuse issues. There are kids who are born into a nurturing home, but their family has a history of substance abuse. This means that addiction is literally in their genetics and in turn, will greatly increase their chance of developing an addiction and becoming homeless. Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse may have lead the youth to run away from home. Family abuse, both physical and mental, can lead kids to turn to drugs or a life on the streets as a way to escape. If drugs are in the home and the youth starts using at a very young age, they have a much higher risk of developing an addiction later in life. Homeless youths with substance abuse issues are much more vulnerable to long-term substance abuse issues than adults. When homelessness is combined with untreated co-occurring disorders that follow them into adulthood, then the risk substance abuse skyrockets.

Women, Homelessness, and Substance Abuse

Homeless women tend to have more issues than homeless men. Women who are homeless are at a high risk of being sexually assaulted. They suffer unique gender-based struggles that includes trauma, which is a major factor in substance abuse. The struggles that homeless women face are a major contributing factor to their substance abuse rates. Homeless women have much higher substance abuse rates compared to men. While 20-25% of homeless people suffer from severe mental illnesses, the rate is significantly higher in female populations. Nearly 60% of homeless women suffer from mental health issues or severe trauma. Many of these issues often occurred prior to them being homeless. 

Many homeless women are in their current situation because they were trying to escape their past. In response to escaping their life that was filled with domestic violence or sexual trauma, they run away and try to start new. Some are victims who fled the powerful and widespread issue of sex trafficking. These variables, along with co-occurring mental health issues have lead around one-third of homeless women to struggle with addiction issues related to powerful narcotic substances. 

homeless veteran on the street

Homeless Veterans and Substance Abuse

The United States is in the middle of the worst drug epidemic that it has ever faced. Opiate addiction, including prescription pills and heroin, is a rampant problem throughout our country. One of the groups most affected by this problem is our veterans. Many veterans will return from their tour of duty with injuries and a prescription for painkillers. This can easily lead to abuse and eventually addiction if they do not seek help.

It’s not just prescription opiates causing issues, veterans have extremely high substance abuse rates and it continues to be a growing problem throughout the United States. Our military members are returning from deployment suffering from a variety of physical and mental health issues due to what they experienced while they were deployed. This has caused substance abuse and alcohol abuse disorder rates among veterans to become more prevalent. 

15% of veterans suffer from PTSD, 11% of service members reported misusing prescription drugs, 27% of soldiers returning from combat abuse of alcohol upon return. When these issues go untreated they will spiral out of control and one can easily find themselves addicted to drugs and/or alcohol which can lead to homelessness.

Too many veterans in the United States, between 130,000 and 200,000 every night, are homeless. This represents one-fourth to one-fifth of all homeless individuals in our country. Three times as many veterans are behind on rent or mortgage payments when compared to nonmilitary, thus the risk of homelessness is much higher. Veterans, especially those who were involved in combat find it hard to hold a job due to the mental health issues that developed while overseas. Furthermore, the future of our veterans is absolutely a matter of concern. Women veterans and those with disabilities are more probable to become homeless, including post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.

Conservatively, one in three homeless males in our towns and rural communities who have no place to call home served this nation. About 40% of homeless males are veterans, although veterans make up only 34% of the overall adult male population. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates that 400,000 veterans will experience homelessness over the course of a year.

The United States Department Veterans Affairs (VA) claims the homeless veterans of the nation are mostly men with only 4% being female veterans. The large majority of homeless veterans are single, the majority are from poor, deprived communities, 45% suffer from mental disease, and half have issues with drug abuse. America’s homeless veterans served in the Second World War, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), Operation Iraqi Freedom, or South America’s anti-drug cultivation efforts.  47% of homeless veterans served during Vietnam. More than 65% served our country for at least three years and 33% were stationed in a war zone.

Here are some additional homeless veteran statistics provided by the National Coalition for the Homeless:

  • 23% of the homeless population are veterans
  • 33% of the male homeless population are veterans
  • 47% Vietnam Era
  • 17% post-Vietnam
  • 15% pre-Vietnam
  • 67% served three or more years
  • 33% stationed in a war zone
  • 25% have used VA Homeless Services
  • 85% completed high school/GED, compared to 56% of non-veterans
  • 89% received Honorable Discharge
  • 79% reside in central cities
  • 16% reside in suburban areas
  • 5% reside in rural areas
  • 76% experience alcohol, drug, or mental health problems
  • 46% white males compared to 34% non-veterans
  • 46% are 45 years of age or older compared to 20% non-veterans

Veterans who are returning from combat situations who suffer from PTSD, anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues should seek out professional help. Seeing a therapist or psychologist on a regular basis combined with medication management can help prevent substance abuse from occurring. 

Overcoming Substance Abuse Issues

People who have found themselves homeless due to their addiction or who have developed an addiction due to their homelessness are in a very difficult situation. It is challenging enough for people with a roof over their heads and private health insurance to overcome their substance abuse issues. Those who are homeless will typically have a more difficult time finding the help they so desperately need. If they continue to abuse drugs/alcohol the chance of them getting off the streets and their life back on track is slim to none. 

Chances are that if one is homeless they do not have private health insurance, so they will not be able to attend a privately owned treatment center. Thankfully, there are state-funded rehab centers throughout the United States. These programs tend to have a waiting list due to a limited number of beds. Sometimes people can be forced to wait several weeks or even months before a bed opens up for them. Once they are able to enter a treatment center they will be able to start working on bettering their lives. 

Once treatment has been completed it is ideal to enter a halfway house. This will put a roof over the head struggling individual and give them somewhere more safe than the streets to lay their heads at night. The work that they do while in a halfway house can be more important than what they did while in treatment. Attending support groups, finding a job, and saving money will help them create a strong foundation in which they can build the rest of their lives upon. Getting clean and staying clean takes a lot of work and dedication, even more for someone who was homeless. 

It is important that as a society we do not look down upon the homeless of our country as a scar on the face of our nation. These are people who have found themselves in a very difficult situation. Our homeless population must understand that their situation is not permanent and that their life story doesn’t have to be ruled by drug addiction and alcoholism. 

As a nation, we need to put more of a focus on helping our homeless population, especially those who have served our country. We must make treating mental health issues a primary concern. We must make treatment for substance abuse more obtainable to the less fortunate. This isn’t something that will go away just because we do not pay attention to it, it requires a cumulative effort.  A new life won’t happen overnight, it takes weeks and months worth of constant and consistent effort. Change never happens without action and action will not be taken if there is no hope. No one should ever lose hope that a better life is not possible, no matter how bad of a situation they have found themselves in. Success is obtainable. 

Do You Want to Know More?

Are you or someone you care about struggling with substance abuse issues? Please reach out to our toll-free line at any time to speak to an addiction professional at: 866-712-4380. There are here to help you through this difficult time however they can. Over the phone consultations are free of charge and completely confidential. Whether you just have some basic questions regarding substance abuse or would like help finding a rehab center near you, Sober Nation is here to help. Please do not try to do this alone and without professional help, a better life is possible and it might just be a phone call away. 

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