Learn / Homelessness and Addiction: How Are They Related?

Homelessness and Addiction: How Are They Related?

Grace Ogren
 April 25th, 2023|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Dr. Malasri Chaudhery-Malgeri, Ph.D.

Key Points

  • Addiction and homelessness have a bi-directional relationship.
  • Homelessness can cause significant treatment barriers.

Homelessness and addiction are related. Despite this relationship, the correlation is not a certainty. But many think they are, so myths and speculations abound: 

Myth 1: “All homeless are addicts. They just need to stop using and things will get better.”

Myth 2: “Addicts always become homeless. It’s their fault.”

Myth 3: “Homeless people are violent because they’re always on drugs.”

Research, time, and empathy have proven both statements (and related ones) wrong. But homelessness and substance abuse do connect in some ways.

The 2 have a bidirectional relationship1—they can both feed into each other. Rehabs for drug and alcohol addiction can sometimes help with both issues at once, but usually, homeless people rely on shelters and specific resources for their population2

Homelessness and Addiction Statistics

A 2022 study by Statista found that roughly 55,000 unsheltered homeless people experience addiction3. In other studies, a third of addiction treatment patients say they’ve experienced homelessness1. And, 

Looking at the numbers, you can see addiction and homelessness connect. Addiction isn’t always the cause, but it definitely can be—and vice versa. 

How Does Addiction Lead to Homelessness?

Addiction doesn’t exclusively lead to homelessness, but it can cause it. Economic statuses, marital statuses, family relationships, and social-economic factors can all make addiction a cause of homelessness.

As an example, someone making minimum or median income would feel the financial effects of addiction almost immediately. As their limited income depletes, paying rent gets harder. 

For additional context, street prices of illicit and prescribed drugs average out to $356 per gram6. The price can be as high as $500 for heroin. An average 24-pack of beer costs around $17. 

Addiction isn’t cheap.

Many homeless adults don’t have the option of staying with family when they can’t afford rent. Their loved ones may have cut them off, moved away, or passed on. Their only viable option could be living in a shelter or on the street.

…And Does Homelessness and Drug Use Lead to Addiction?

It can. Some homeless people use opioids, weed, alcohol, and other substances to cope with the trauma of becoming homeless5. Others do it to fit in with the community. 

Homeless people may also start using substances to stay awake, sleep, or stay energized when they’re malnourished. Drug addiction can become a crutch for living homeless that takes up the funds, time, and energy they could otherwise use to get help. Homeless people might also run into legal trouble and tarnish a clean record.

And even though help exists, it’s not always easy for this population to get it.

Understanding The Challenges And Seeking Help

Whatever the cause may be of addiction and homelessness, getting help has its challenges. A lack of money, support, and knowledge leaves many thinking there’s no way out.

But there is. 

Barrier #1: Shelter And Safety

Getting help for addiction might not seem like a top priority if you don’t have somewhere safe to stay. You might be more concerned with getting cover, keeping yourself safe from others, and keeping yourself out of trouble. You likely wouldn’t have much time or mental energy to focus on treatment. 

Not all homeless people have access to shelter, even temporary overnight lodging. If they do find shelter, it’s rarely long term. 

Having a home base, even if it’s a temporary living situation in a shelter, can help your fight-or-flight mode ease down. Then, thinking about help and taking the next steps might not seem so unfeasible. 

Barrier #2: No Social Support Network

Many homeless adults don’t have anyone to help them help themselves. They don’t have anyone cheering them on. Getting help rests almost entirely on their shoulders, which can be overwhelming. 

And, if addiction is the norm in your community, you might lose what little social support you have if you stop. This could be the case for many homeless people. Even when they want to stop, change their lives, and get help, they might feel pressured to keep using. 

Barrier #3: Mental Illness And The Effects of Addiction

Mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and PTSD can prevent homeless individuals from wanting–and getting–help. Treatment for these conditions may also be difficult to maintain. Homeless people might miss treatment sessions, have to relocate, or feel unable to add repeated treatment to their lifestyle. These factors can make healthcare providers less willing to work with the homeless population1

Active addiction could also make getting short and long-term help difficult.

The symptoms and effects of addiction can mirror some mental illnesses, like schizophrenia. Some drugs, like lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and opioids7, can cause psychosis. Many substances, including alcohol and weed, put you in an altered state of mind. This can make decisions difficult, even important ones about your health and wellbeing.

But for each barrier to treatment, even if they seem insurmountable, you have opportunities to reach them. Help awaits.

Explore Drug Addiction Treatment Centers

Find Support for Homelessness and Addiction

Homelessness and drug addiction don’t have to be your story. 

You can begin your recovery journey by finding shelter, if you’re living unsheltered. Some shelters take in men only or women only, while others welcome all genders. Others specifically welcome teens and runaways. Here’s a few options to consider:  

While shelters offering treatment options for substance use disorders (SUDs) aren’t as common as regular homeless shelters, they do exist across America. Most of these SUD-specific shelters provide medication-assisted treatment8 (MAT) for opioid use to combat the growing opioid epidemic. They also provide encouragement, hope, and can lower the mortality rates of addiction and overdose.
You can also find treatment in a residential rehab center as your journey continues. To see rehabs that treat drug and alcohol addiction, you can browse our list of centers with pricing, reviews, photos, and insurance.

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