If we believe what we see in movies and TV shows, drugs and homelessness go hand in hand, creating a societal stigma surrounding poverty. While many individuals who have substance use disorder struggle to keep stable housing, homelessness and addiction do not signify failure or a lack of worth. Instead, societies must reduce the negative stereotypes associated with homeless populations and take steps to remove barriers to safe, secure housing and effective treatment for substance abuse.
Prevalence of Addiction in the Homeless Population
While it is difficult to determine how many homeless individuals also experience addiction to drugs or alcohol, some experts put the number at around 40%. Some of the reasons for the high percentage of addiction in this population include the stigma of poverty and the subsequent denial of basic human rights to the homeless, especially in large cities like Toronto. Homeless shelters are often overcrowded and come with health issues such as bedbugs. Many individuals decide to remain on the streets rather than resort to a substandard institutional living situation.
Life Out in the Cold
Image via Flickr by M1kha
Surviving winter while living on the streets in Canada can be next to impossible. In Toronto, we commonly see people who live on the streets using tents to protect themselves from the cold. The city and human rights activists constantly battle about whether to allow tents, and the homeless are left without knowing whether their shelters 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 individuals turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism. Not only can substances help heat up the body on the nights where the temperature is too low to survive, but they also provide distance from the mental and emotional struggles of living in poverty.
The Role of Mental Illness
Mental illness is a crucial part of the answer to the question about drugs and homelessness. The prevalence of mental illness among homeless individuals reflects its prevalence in the general population. Some people become homeless because of untreated mental illness and the lack of a support system that would facilitate treatment and recovery.
Without a regular address, obtaining both physical and mental health services becomes a constant challenge. For example, if someone who takes antidepressants cannot make it to their doctor for a required follow-up, they may not be able to access their prescription. This often leads to using drugs and alcohol as a replacement for therapeutic mental health care. As dependency develops, it becomes even more difficult for an individual with both mental illness and addiction to successfully access services, especially without housing and other societal safety nets.
Thinking about innovative solutions can help combat homelessness. Many believe that we should start by providing them with the mental health care they need, including treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. For homeless advocates, however, this approach puts the cart before the horse.
The Home First movement, a national coalition for the homeless, believes that before taking steps to relieve mental illness and addiction, we must first address a homeless individual’s living situation. Giving someone a steady place to live empowers them to address issues such as health, substance use, and employment. Without taking care of that need, the person is unable to gain the services needed to tackle their other issues. The Home First movement has successfully helped many individuals who have experienced homelessness achieve a healthier, more stable lifestyle.
As with most social issues, there are many factors that contribute to homelessness and alcohol or drug addiction. It is important to remember that homeless people are people first and have the same problems as those who have homes. We should not marginalize homeless individuals or stereotype them as addicts. 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.