Homelessness and Drug Addiction: A National Epidemic

Homelessness and drug addiction is a dreadful problem plaguing the nation. More than 1 million people are homeless, with approximately 30 percent of these people suffering from mental illness and 50 percent chronically addicted to drugs, alcohol or both. Approximately 70 percent of homeless veterans are estimated to be substance abusers.


Although experts cannot agree whether substance abuse causes homelessness or homeless people are more likely to be substance abusers, one thing is clear: Addiction and homelessness is a big problem, one that needs to be addressed in proactive ways.

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Substance Abuse and Homelessness Statistics

In the United States, an estimated 109,812 people are chronically homeless. Chronically homeless means that these people live on the streets almost all the time, with perhaps short periods of living in shelters or with family or friends. Many of these people have both substance abuse and concurrent mental illness.

The statistics on homelessness and substance abuse tell a compelling and troubling story. The following statistics are for single people only and do not include families or children who are homeless. All figures are from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services statistics.

  • 1,593,150 people were homeless in one year (2009-2010). That statistic may be an indicator of a typical year.
  • 407,966 individuals were homeless in shelters, transitional housing programs, or on the streets.

Among those who are homeless, substance abuse occurs in a large portion of the population.

  • 2 percent of all people living in homeless shelters had a severe mental illness.
  • 7 percent of all individuals living in homeless shelters were substance abusers.

Substance abuse and homelessness in women also affects many people.

  • 34 percent of the total homeless population consists of families.
  • 84 percent of those homeless families are headed by women


Considering these numbers, it’s easy to see why homelessness is such a difficult problem to tackle. Many of the individuals needing shelter also need mental health services, substance abuse counseling or both. Often they suffer from medical conditions such as liver disease, diabetes, AIDS, pneumonia, sexually transmitted diseases and other serious conditions. A one-size-fits-all approach to fixing the problems of homelessness or addiction just doesn’t work when the people needing the help have many serious problems, and no two people have the exact same set of needs.

Homelessness and Drug Addiction: The Vicious Cycle

Homelessness and drug addiction often go together because of the high cost of drug addiction. An individual with a hard-core heroin addiction may spend $150 to $200 per day, for example. If that person loses his job, he can easily run through his life savings in a matter of weeks.


Many people who are addicted to drugs end up homeless because they can no longer afford housing. Money spent on drugs is money that’s unavailable for housing.

Some addicts lose their jobs. Without a steady paycheck, they end up losing their homes to foreclosure or eviction. Homeless and addicted to drugs or alcohol, they find themselves living on the streets. A vicious cycle has begun of addiction, homelessness and more addiction.


It may take an entire team of family, friends and others to help someone break out of that vicious cycle. It may be difficult, but it can be done, and resources are available. It just takes someone like a social worker or addiction counselor who knows and understands what programs are available locally to help families find the help they need for a loved one.

Does Homelessness Lead to Addiction?

Some experts also point out that homelessness itself can lead to addiction.  People suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses often turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate their symptoms. According to government statistics, 80 percent of homeless people have experienced a lifelong struggle with drug and alcohol abuse.

Whether they began as addicts and lost their homes or lived on the streets and turned to drugs to numb the pain of being homeless is unknown. The end result is the same: They’re without the basic necessities of life, and they need treatment for medical and psychiatric problems as well as drug and alcohol abuse.

Risk Factors: Addiction and Homelessness

Addiction is like an octopus, with many tentacles wrapping themselves around every facet of a substance abuser’s life. As a substance abuser becomes increasingly dependent on drugs and alcohol, their expenses increase just when their income decreases. They can lose their homes and apartments as well as anything else they own in the pursuit of their next high.

Additionally, substance abusers often become homeless for the following reasons:

  • Substance abusers often have bad credit, or lack any type of credit. It’s almost impossible to rent an apartment or home without good credit. Yet many substance abusers have ruined their credit scores due to unpaid bills and other issues. That makes it hard to get a new apartment or home when they lose their current dwelling.
  • Without a job, it’s hard to find a place to live. No income means no ability to rent or buy a home. Addicts often end up homeless and on the streets once their resources are exhausted.
  • Substance abuse and homelessness in women often stems from domestic violence. Many women flee abusive situations and turn to drugs or alcohol for comfort. They end up on the street, afraid to return to an abusive situation or unable to do so.
  • Many homeless drug abusers have prior arrests, making it difficult to find housing. Background checks turn up the prior arrest, and landlords turn them down. This perpetuates the cycle of homelessness, addiction and crime for these people.
  • Substance abusers with mental health issues are often evicted. They can be noisy or disruptive, leading to landlord complaints and eventual addiction. This makes it hard for them to rent again.
  • They may not think they have a problem. Substance abusers with concurrent mental health disorders may be homeless because they don’t believe they have a problem, or they feel they can’t live inside a home. Mental illnesses wreak havoc on their sense of reality; paranoia and hallucinations can make it difficult for these people to even stay overnight in homeless shelters. Without treatment for all of their medical and psychiatric problems, they can’t enter substance abuse treatment or find rest in a shelter.

Substance Abuse and Homelessness as a Public Health Issue

Substance abuse and homelessness is also an important public health issue. Homeless people often have a lot of concurrent medical problems as well as psychiatric issues and substance abuse.

Living on the streets is rough. Not only are people exposed to extremes of heat and cold, but also sanitation is nonexistent. Poor nutrition, lack of clean water and adequate clothing combined with substance abuse wears down the health of many homeless people. Many suffer from AIDS contracted by sharing needles, and chronic diseases associated with AIDS like recurring pneumonia. Individuals suffering from both substance abuse and homelessness need a wide range of services. Homelessness seen in this light is a public health issue.

When it comes to substance abuse and homelessness in women, public health issues are even more pronounced. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists reports that the rate of unintended pregnancies among homeless women is much higher than that among the general population of women.

Homeless women have little or no access to contraception, prenatal care or other services related to reproduction. If they’re also substance abusers, the need is even greater for them to receive treatment during pregnancy since both drugs and alcohol can harm an unborn child. Yet very few services are available for these women.

Where to Find Help

Unfortunately, substance abusers who are also homeless may not know where to turn for help. They may not be interested yet in finding help, especially if they’re deep into their addiction. Families of people who are both addicted and homeless often struggle to convince their loved one to get help. Once they do find that person on the street and are able to talk to them, then the challenge of finding a treatment program begins.

Because homelessness, substance abuse and mental health issues often occur together, a cookie-cutter approach to the problem doesn’t work. It’s not enough to offer shelter and food to someone who is a paranoid alcoholic. Few programs aimed at the homeless include treatment for substance abuse, so those who work with these populations must get creative with their approach to treating individuals.

In order to successfully treat addiction and homelessness, barriers to treatment programs must be removed. It’s hard enough for homeless people to meet their daily needs, let alone jump hurdles to receive treatment. For example, most homeless people lack access to transportation, even public transportation. Providing transportation to meetings and recovery centers or public transportation vouchers for the homeless is just one step that cities serious about helping to end homelessness and drug addiction can take to help homeless addicts get sober.


Creative Approaches to Treating Drug Addiction and Homelessness

Because addicts who are also homeless have multiple issues, creative approaches are needed by public health officials and others to solve the problem. A few promising approaches include:

  • Housing-first models: Instead of focusing on addiction and recovery first, these models emphasize finding safe, affordable housing for addicts. Once someone has a roof over their head and running water, then the intervention encourages them to receive treatment. The idea behind this model is that it’s hard to remain sober on the street, but easier when basic life needs are met.
  •  Self-help models: Homeless shelters often have information on local 12-step meetings, so that anyone at the shelter interested in getting help for drug or alcohol abuse can find a meeting location within walking distance. Often, recovered alcoholics and drug addicts will conduct visits at homeless shelters, hoping to show active addicts that there is hope for sobriety and recovery. This personalized approach has worked since Alcoholics Anonymous was founded and continues to work to this day.
  • Cities offering drug-free, low-income group housing units: These housing units are strictly drug and alcohol free, and offered to people leaving the system after receiving treatment. Although they’re few in number, this approach helps homeless recovering addicts find a home until they’re back on their feet again. By living with like-minded individuals also committed to recovery, recovering addicts have a greater chance of staying sober.
  • Harm reduction programs: These controversial programs seek to reduce the harm created by addiction and homelessness rather than getting at the root cause of the problem. The belief undergirding this system is that many homeless addicts aren’t ready to go into treatment, but until they do, steps can still be taken to reduce the harm done by their situation. Programs using a harm-reduction model hope to reach homeless addicts where they’re at rather at in their journey. An example of a harm-reduction program may be a clean needle program that swaps dirty needles for sterile ones to reduce the risk of hepatitis and HIV/AIDS.

All of these models for treating homelessness and drug addiction see treatment as a continuum, rather than an end point. Most treat both the critical needs of the individual as well as their long-term needs. It’s not enough to offer detoxification programs and temporary housing, for example. Long-term treatment, an affordable house and continued support during recovery are all essential if a homeless addict is going to remain sober.

Get Help for Drug Addiction

Most people reading this have a home, no matter how humble or simple. Losing that home is a dreadful prospect. However, alcoholics and drug addicts seldom consider this when they’re in the middle of a binge, or their addiction gets the best of them. It may be up to family members and friends to conduct an intervention or encourage someone they love to get help before it’s too late.

12 Keys Rehab offers an approach to drug addiction and recovery that treats the individual, rather than the disease. As seen among those treating homelessness and addiction, each person is unique and requires a customized approach to recovery. 12 Keys Rehab believes that this personalized approach to recovery offers hope for those suffering from addiction.

The staff at 12 Keys Rehab includes professionals experienced in addiction and recovery treatment and support. These caring counselors, therapists and others offer guidance and compassion throughout your stay at 12 Keys Rehab. Our approach includes mind, body, spiritual and family components that provide a holistic framework for recovery.

Homelessness in the United States is an epidemic. So too is drug and alcohol addiction. Together, these two problems combine into a lethal situation that leads to deeper problems. Help someone you love stop their addiction before it’s too late. Contact 12 Keys Rehab to speak with an admissions counselor 24/7.

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