Home Commentary Addressing the Myth: Are All Homeless People Addicted to Drugs, Alcohol?

Addressing the Myth: Are All Homeless People Addicted to Drugs, Alcohol?

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By Josiah Haken, CEO, City Relief

In this post, we will continue our series about the lies that too many of us believe about our neighbors experiencing homelessness. One of the most pervasive myths out there is that homeless folks are all addicted to drugs, alcohol, or both.

If you’re interested, you can read more about this in my book, Neighbors With No Doors: The Truth About Homelessness, and How You Can Make a Difference, but for now let’s take a brief look at why this myth is such a misconception.

Let’s start with the facts: according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA, a government agency), 38% of homeless people abused alcohol while 26% abused other drugs. While these numbers are higher than the national average, let’s give this some perspective. If 38% of all homeless folks struggle with addiction to alcohol, that means 62% of unhoused people do not. Similarly, if 26% of all homeless folks abuse drugs, 74% do not.

For those in the unhoused population who struggle with addiction, they do just that: struggle. Just like in the housed population, homeless folks typically use drugs and alcohol as self-medication for both physical and emotional pain. This is often in place of therapeutic or psychiatric services that are difficult to access if you’re living on the street or in an emergency shelter. Beyond that, more than 80% of homeless individuals report having experienced life-altering trauma at some point in their lives. That’s a rough emotional starting point when you’re also living on the streets, have a job that doesn’t pay a living wage, and are looked down upon for simply existing in public spaces.

Furthermore, for those living on the streets and struggling with addiction, getting help is never as simple as just asking for it. The amount that someone uses, the duration of time they’ve been using, the medications they’re taking, their access to health insurance, quality healthcare, and government-issued identification all impact how and where someone can go to get treatment. Even then, I cannot count the number of people I’ve personally transported to inpatient treatment who were turned away because there was no bed available, or they needed to have their prescription medications before they could be admitted, or they didn’t have the right insurance, or they didn’t have anywhere to store their personal belongings, or, or, or…the list of goes on.

All of these obstacles mount and create the biggest hurdle of all: the simple belief that real change isn’t possible for them. Life on the street is soul-crushing, dangerous, and endless. I understand why people use drugs or drink alcohol when they’re homeless. I also understand why they conclude that there is no point in trying to stop. I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same if I were in their position. Could you?

The reason that the assumption that homelessness is usually the result of addiction is so problematic is because if someone’s circumstances are a direct result of their own poor choices or self-destructive behaviors, we will, at best, justify doing nothing to help and, at worst, actually blame the very people who need as much compassion as we can offer. We need to remember that the gravitational pull of substance abuse is almost impossible for some to overcome without allies and advocates who will keep believing that change is possible, even when there might be reasons not to.

Josiah Haken is the CEO of City Relief, a Greater NYC-based mobile outreach offering people experiencing poverty and homelessness hot meals, supplies, and connections to resources for housing, employment, and health care.