Drug and alcohol abuse and the homeless

We explore how people end up on the streets…and the relationship between being homeless and drugs and alcohol abuse. Stats on drug & alcohol abuse as causes of homelessness here.

minute read

Homeless statistics: How many homeless people abuse drugs and alcohol?

It is difficult to precisely target how many people living without a home have drug and alcohol abuse problems.  But according to the U.S. Department on Housing and Urban Development (USHUD) and its most recent report on homelessness (see below), more than 4 in 10 individual homeless adults (42.9%) have disabilities, which include drug and alcohol problems.  This statistic can compared to 14 percent of adults who have disabilities and are living without a home with families.

Furthermore, drug and alcohol use and homelessness are related according to whether or not a person is homeless for a short term or long term.  Specifically, of the 5% of the nearly 2 million homeless people reported by the USHUD in 2009 categorized as chronically homeless, nearly all people living without a home for more than a month have family problems and some kind of disability, including drug or alcohol addiction or mental illness. Based on the 2009 HUD Homeless Assessment Report to Congress,

about one-third of sheltered homeless persons [in a point-in-time January study] reported chronic substance abuse problem… However, contrary to the perceptions that some people have of homelessness, a majority of homeless shelter users do not have chronic substance abuse problems or severe mental illness.

With such varying rates and numbers (chronic vs. short term homelessness, homeless individuals vs. homeless families, and the lack of precise data on “disability”), it is difficult to come up with a definition conclusion on the relationship between addiction and homelessness.  But it seem logical to conclude that drugs and alcohol can play an important role in either getting a person on the streets, or KEEPING that person on the streets.  And this seems to be in line with real experiences on the streets.

Can drug and alcohol abuse cause homeless-ness?

Yes.  We talked with Larry Huff, the President of Samaritan Inns, a non-profit that specializes in helping homeless addicts get off the streets, about this very issue.   Of the causes of homelessness Larry says, “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.”

What generally comes first…addiction or homelessness?

About the relationship between addiction and homelessness, Larry also says, “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.”

Homeless addicts and costs to society

Furthermore, it is important to address addiction within the homeless population at large.  While people who abuse drugs and alcohol make up a relatively small share of the homeless population, they consume more emergency and transitional shelters and occupy hospitals and jails at high rates.

Help for homeless people

In the interest of social welfare, we need to address the root causes of homelessness, and disability caused by addiction is one that is treatable. Again, Larry Huff says,” local governments are seeking to solve the problem by getting people off the street and into subsidized housing.  We have some resistance to this idea, as we don’t feel that it solves some of the deeper problems of mental disoders or substance abuse.”

So if affordable housing doesn’t treat addiction, what can?  What do you think?  How can homeless men and women addicted to drugs and alcohol start to live new lives?  How can we address the social need to care for the most vulnerable of our population?  And are we culpable at all for other people’s addictions?   We explore this issue further here on Addiction Blog in an ongoing series about drug abuse alcoholism and homelessness.

Reference sources:  HUD Homeless Assessment Report 2009
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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