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Addiction In The Homeless Population


The homeless addict stereotype

Often times, when we picture an addict, we think of a homeless person begging for money.  We associate homelessness and addiction, assuming that with one comes the other.  This stereotype is so strong that it is often how the homeless population is depicted in TV shows and movies.  There is the prevalent idea that people who are homeless are unable to take care of their own affairs and that their addiction is a sign of this failure.  People often say that they do not like giving money to the homeless as they will just use the money on drugs or alcohol, and the homeless population is further stigmatized as unworthy.  Though the proportion of addicts within the homeless population is high, it would be inaccurate to say that all homeless people have addiction issues. This stereotype does not help when it comes to addressing the connection between the homeless population and addiction.

How prevalent is the homeless addiction problem?

Most studies show that around 40% of the homeless population abuse drugs or alcohol.  This is a large proportion of the homeless population, but when looking at the conditions in which they live, we can see why this might happen.  The homeless in Canada are treated very poorly by the rest of society and are often stigmatized as being unworthy of our help.  When looking at large cities, such as Toronto, we see that the homeless are often denied basic rights.  Homeless individuals are often not given adequate help when it comes to living situations as shelters are overcrowded and often come with their own problems.  It can be dangerous to stay in a shelter, and some find that living on the street is the best way to stay safe.  Additionally, there are many health issues that can show up in the shelter system, such as bedbugs.  With these different concerns, some of the homeless population choose to live on the streets rather than finding a bed in a shelter, and in Canada this can be extremely difficult.

Out in the cold

Trying to survive the winter while living on the streets in Canada can be next to impossible.  In places like Toronto, it is not uncommon to see tents being used by those living on the streets to protect themselves from the cold.  There is a constant battle between the city and human rights activists about whether to allow such tents, and the homeless are stuck not knowing whether their makeshift shelter will still be standing the next day.  When looking at how we treat the homeless in our society, it can be easy to see why so many may turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism.  Not only can the substances help heat up the body on the nights where the temperature is too low to survive, it can take your mind off your troubles, even if just for a while.  It can be hard enough for people with no housing issues to avoid the use of drugs and alcohol, so the idea that people without homes should somehow be able to survive without the aid of a substance is unrealistic.

Homelessness and mental illness

Just like in the regular population, many people without a home suffer from mental illness.  This can make it difficult for them to function in society, especially if they do not have a proper support system.  And just as in the regular population, if these mental health issues go unchecked, than addiction can follow.  The homeless population often have many health concerns that they are unable to get medical attention for, as it can be difficult to gain access to services when you have no fixed address.  For example, if someone were to become homeless, they may no longer be able to get the help they need for their depression.  This would then cause them to seek other means of medicating their mental health issues, and alcohol is much cheaper than Zoloft.  Once the individual establishes a connection between alcohol and relief of depression symptoms, they may find it almost impossible to stop drinking, and they become dependant on alcohol.  Without any help from others, it can be virtually impossible to gain control of addictions and since homeless people usually lack support, the addiction can go on for years.

What is the solution?

One way to help combat homelessness is by thinking differently about what the solutions should be.  Many believe that in order to help a homeless person regain their place in society, we must start by treating their mental health issues, including any addictions they might have.  Homeless advocates are now seeing that this is putting the cart before the horse.  The Home First movement is the idea that in order to combat homelessness, we need to address the living situation before we can move towards relieving any mental health issues the homeless person may suffer from.  The idea is that by giving the person a steady place to live, they will have the resources they need to combat things such as addiction issues. If that one need is not taken care of, the person is unable to gain the services needed to tackle their other issues.  This type of program has been very successful at helping people’s re-entry to “normal” society and should be looked at when discussing issues within the homeless population.

Final thoughts

As with most social issues, there are many factors that contribute to homelessness and addiction.  There is no easy solution to the substance abuse issues seen in the homeless population, but then again, there is no easy solution to the substance abuse issue in “normal” society.  It is important to remember that homeless people are people first and have the same problems as those who have homes.  We should not stereotype the homeless as being addicts, as this can further marginalized them. What we need to know when seeing a homeless person struggling with addiction is that it is not their “fault.”  Humans are flawed, no matter their living situation, and if we can have compassion for the homeless population, perhaps part of the problem will be fixed.

Image by Quinn Kampschroer from Pixabay