The Vicious Cycle of Addiction and Homelessness

12/23/19: Addiction
Homelessness and addiction often go hand-in-hand. It’s a common stereotype that people who find themselves on the streets have done so because they struggle with addiction. You hear “oh don’t give them money, they’ll just use it to buy drugs.” While these stereotypes often lead to harsh, unnecessary judgment, statistics show that the frequency of addiction is indeed higher amongst the homeless compared to the average population of Americans. In addition, the homeless population suffers from one or more co-occurring mental health disorders at a higher rate than the general population. Finally, a study from JAMA Internal Medicine shows us that drug overdose is the most common cause of death among the homeless population, and over 80 percent of these deaths involved opioids. So yes, there is a clear correlation between homelessness and addiction, but it is important not to point fingers at the individual. As we know, addiction is a complex, all-consuming disease that can take complete control over one’s life, and they are more or less powerless to stop it. This is why it usually takes many years and many relapses for a person to overcome their addiction, and the difficulty of this task increases tenfold when the individual is also living on the streets and struggling to simply survive until the next day. So what contributes to this cycle of homelessness, mental illness, and addiction? And how can we help break this cycle? Let’s explore.

Scope of the Issue

As of 2017, there were approximately 554,000 homeless people in the United States, and the number is only increasing. The National Coalition for the Homeless reports that 38% of homeless people struggle with alcoholism, and 26% are dependent on other types of harmful substances. In addition, around 33% of the homeless population battles mental illness, and it is said that this is a major cause of homelessness which then often leads to drug and alcohol abuse as well. This population is extremely vulnerable to abuse and physical assault and violence as well. However, the homeless problem in America can be attributed to much more than just addiction and mental illness. When you take a step back, it becomes clear that the continually increasing numbers of people living and struggling to survive on the streets are, in a large part, the result of a bigger systemic failing. There is a tragic lack of resources being dedicated to providing support and rehabilitation to the homeless and those struggling with mental health disorders and substance abuse issues. Because of this, the cycle is able to persist.

How Addiction Leads to Homelessness

Substance abuse issues often lead to homelessness. This is due to the isolating nature of addiction. Addiction usually leads to a complete change in personality for the addicted person, creating rifts between family and friends. This may also lead to job loss, which then results in financial issues as the individual struggles to pay their bills while also sustaining their harmful habit. Eventually, this may become too much, and they may lose their housing as a result. In 2008, the United States Conference of Mayors asked 25 cities what their top three causes of homelessness were. The results? Substance abuse was cited as the single largest cause of homelessness for single adults, as reported by 68% of the cities. And according to Didenko and Pankratz (2007), two-thirds of homeless people report that drugs and/or alcohol were a major reason for their becoming homeless. However, homelessness can also be a major

What Causes Homelessness?

While it is true that addiction can often lead to homelessness, there are plenty of other reasons a person might find themselves homeless. Once that happens, they instantly become much more vulnerable to developing a substance abuse disorder while living on the streets because of the mental toll it can take on a person. The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) lists some of the key economic factors that contribute to homelessness in the US, shared by Sunrise House.

Factors Contributing to Homelessness

  • Home foreclosures. In the past 10 years, home foreclosures have increased by over 30 percent, according to the NCH, resulting in a loss of housing among homeowners and an increase in evictions among renters.
  • Lack of affordable healthcare. Overwhelming medical costs are one of the most common reasons for bankruptcy and poverty, and serious health problems or disabilities can also lead to homelessness.
  • Loss of job opportunities. Changes in the American workforce and a general economic recession have resulted in the loss of employment opportunities, especially among low-wage workers. As a result, more individuals and families are living in poverty and at risk of losing their housing.
  • Lack of public assistance programs. A decline in funding for cash assistance programs has resulted in an increase in homelessness and poverty, especially among individuals with disabilities and families headed by females.
  • Lack of affordable housing. Federal support for low-income housing has decreased in recent years, a trend that is particularly hard on renters. Meanwhile, rental costs continue to rise, placing low-income individuals and families in the difficult position of trying to pay higher housing costs on lower wages.”

Barriers to Treatment

The cyclical nature of homelessness and addiction is worsened by the extensive barriers to treatment that the homeless population faces. Aside from the obvious (mental illness and substance abuse), other barriers include:
  • Shelters, low-income, and other transitional housing units usually require residents to pass drug tests before they can qualify for housing.
  • Low motivation to seek help due to mental health issues such as depression.
  • Fear of judgment.
  • Fear caused by paranoid beliefs or anxiety.
  • Lack of transportation and mobility.
  • Lack of awareness of resources available to them.
  • Lack of convenience to these resources.
  • Inadequate health insurance of financial resources to pay for treatment.
  • No support system to lean on.
Even if these individuals do find a way to receive treatment, it can be much more difficult to continue on the path of sobriety. If they are still dealing with mental health issues, financial issues, and homelessness, the instability of their situation will always make it ten times harder to remain sober and continue on a journey of self-improvement.

What Can Be Done?

The cycle of addiction and homelessness is a complex issue with many layers. For this reason, it’s difficult to improve the situation by simply addressing one issue in an isolated manner. The problem needs to be tackled as one conglomerate, not separate parts. First and foremost, there needs to be more access to affordable therapy and counseling. Poor coping skills is one of the greatest causes of addiction, but therapy can teach individuals how to deal with unhealthy stress in a healthy way, as well as guide homeless individuals to resources that they may not have been aware of before. In some cases, medication may be necessary to treat more severe conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, etc, that are difficult to manage on their own. Perhaps the most important piece is how we as a society view mental illness, substance abuse, and homelessness. There is a major stigma surrounding all three of these, and the conversation has to change. Simply raising awareness of the reality of the issue can have a huge impact. Many people don’t realize the cyclical nature of these issues, nor the full weight of the powerlessness that the homeless community faces. Now that you have armed yourself with the facts about addiction and homelessness, all you have to do to make a positive impact is share what you’ve learned. If you feel compelled, there are plenty of ways you can help out by volunteering, donating, or simply spreading awareness.

Content for Arizona Addiction Recovery Centers created by Cohn Media, LLC. Passionate and creative writing and broadcasting, covering the following industries: addiction rehab, health care, entertainment, technology and advocate of clear communication, positivity and humanity at its best. www.cohn.media


If you or someone you know needs help with addiction, contact 602-737-1619 or email info@arizonaaddiction.com to get the help you need. Our acclaimed recovery environment merges upscale, luxury accommodations with affordability, clinical expertise and an unwavering commitment to patient care and aftercare.

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