Link between Homelessness and Substance Abuse

Homelessness is often associated with substance abuse. While it is true that many within this group do have drug or alcohol problems, it would be wrong to claim that the two are always linked. Most addicts don’t become homeless and most homeless people aren’t addicts. Many western countries have witnessed a rise in the numbers of homeless recently and this can’t simply be attributed to substance abuse problems.

Homelessness occurs for many different reasons. It is a complex problem that does not appear to have any easy solutions. Some individuals may later turn to addiction as a means to cope with their lack of a fixed abode. It can be difficult to determine how much substance abuse leads to homelessness compared with the frequency by which homelessness leads to substance abuse.

In the past it was common to punish the homeless by whipping them in public or putting them in prison. Such people are treated a bit better nowadays, but they still tend to be looked down upon as outcasts. In most cities there will be provisions to help such individuals, but the problem shows no signs of going away. It can be harder for those with substance abuse problems to avail of any services. They are more likely to fall through the cracks.

Homelessness Defined

On the surface the word homelessness can appear to have an obvious meaning, but it can actually be quite hard to define what is meant by this. This is because the word home is quite vague. Some people stay in cardboard and tent cities which they might classify as their home. Others will go from shelter to shelter where they will be able to find temporary accommodation. If the term is only used to refer to people living rough on the streets, it will lead to a decrease in the number of people classified as homeless. If the term is used in a much broader sense, to refer to anyone with no fixed abode, it would mean that cultural groups such as gypsies would fall into this category. Many developing countries have enormous populations in substandard and makeshift housing.

In the United States the Federal Definition of Homelessness refers to people who include:

* Anyone who doesn’t have a regular or fixed nighttime residence that is adequate for their needs.
* Those individuals who live temporarily in an institution, a shelter (this includes welfare hotels), or anywhere that has not been created as a place for humans to sleep.

Homelessness Statistics

Homelessness statistics are a cause for much debate. This is because there are methodological and financial constraints when it comes to collecting such data. The focus tends to be on those who stay in shelters or attend soup kitchens. This means that many individuals will never be counted in the numbers. There is also the problem that for people who are temporarily without a home, such individuals are also likely to be missed in the data. Of course the definition used for classifying people as homeless will also have a significant impact on these statistics.

It is estimated that there are 3.5 million people in the US who would fall under the category of homeless. This works out at about 1% of the population and includes 1.5 million children. There are believed to be about 100 million people around the world without a home so 3.5% of these individuals live in the US. It is believed that recent problems with the economy may increase the number of homeless by as much as 1.5 million in the US.

Causes of Homelessness

Alcohol and drug abuse does lead to homelessness, but substance abuse is just one of many contributing factors including –

* Poverty
* Divorce or other relationship breakdown
* Mental illness
* No local affordable housing
* Rent arrears
* Escaping an abusive home
* Those individuals who previously had housing in the army or other institution
* Failure to receive child support
* A personal tragedy or post traumatic stress disorder
* Natural Disaster victims
* Unemployment
* Released inmates
* Inability to get social assistance
* Domestic violence victims
* A wage that is too low to pay for housing
* Poor physical health
* Those individuals who have been socially excluded
* Physical disabilities
* Family breakdowns
* Lack of affordable health care
* Debt problems

Dangers of Homelessness

Homeless people tend to be the most vulnerable members of society. Some of the biggest dangers they face include:

* Health problems within this group tend to be ignored. This means that they can have different medical or mental health conditions which will go untreated.
* The homeless are far more likely to become a victim of crime. There is very little personal security available for such people.
* Such people are more at risk of developing nutritional deficiencies that can lead to health problems
* Homeless shelters can dangerous places where people can be bullied or have their belongings stolen. In a lot of cities it can be safer to say on the streets than in a shelter.
* It can be hard to maintain personal hygiene
* Such individuals may be picked upon by the authorities because they are considered vagrants
* Homeless children will have trouble accessing education
* There will be huge difficulties obtaining employment
* Harsh weather conditions can make people sick or even kill them
* Such individuals are less likely to be able to escape addiction

Substance Abuse and Homelessness

It is believed that about 38% of homeless people abuse alcohol while 26% regularly use other drugs. These statistics show that substance abuse among this group is significantly higher than the general population. This has led some people to conclude that it is use of alcohol and drugs that is most important contributing factor to this situation. It is unlikely that the situation is as clear cut as this; it may be that many of these individuals turn to addictive substances as a means to cope with homelessness. These people will often be dealing with a high degree of stress, and some will have mental health problems, so it is understandable that many will be tempted to turn substance abuse as a form of self medication.

While there may be many individuals who turned to substance abuse as a means to cope with homelessness, there are undoubtedly many who ended up in this situation because of such abuse. Abusing alcohol and drugs can be highly detrimental to the life of the individual. It can rob them of everything including their job, family, possessions, and friends. Addiction always involves a downward trajectory that can easily lead to homelessness.

Social Selection vs. Social Adaptation

Social selection and social adaptation are two models that have been used to explain homelessness. Social selection theory would see substance abuse as a pathway that leads people to this situation. The social adaptation theory favors the idea that people may adapt to their situation by abusing alcohol and drugs. It is likely that both offer a partial explanation of the relationship between substance abuse and homelessness.

Homeless Substance Abusers are a Vulnerable Group

Alcohol abusers and drug users can be a particularly vulnerable group within the homeless population. Many shelters will not admit anyone who is drunk or high. This means that such individuals will often be left to fend for themselves; this can be particularly dangerous during winter. Such individuals will also often find it more difficult to make use of any available help that is provided by the community or social services. In recent years there has been an increase in the number of ‘wet shelters’ where individuals can go to even if they have been drinking.

Homelessness is a Complex Problem

The fact that there can be so many contributing factors that lead to homelessness means that it can be a complex problem to fix. A common problem is that people fail to consider the views of the homeless themselves, but instead try to remedy the situation without such consultations. This often leads to responses that don’t prove effective or only offer a temporary solution. In order to help people escape their current plight it is important to investigate what drove them to it in the first place. If these causes are not addressed it can mean that the individual will only ever be able temporarily solve their housing problems.