The relationship between homelessness and drug or alcohol addiction is tense and complicated. In many municipalities, officials are working hard to get homeless men and women off the streets and into permanent housing, providing a safe home, stability, and protection from both the elements and other people.

At times, though, these permanent homes can be just as detrimental to the addicted residents who live in these permanent housing projects as living on the streets was. In some permanent housing projects, homeless men and women are surrounded by addicts and alcoholics, making it difficult for those who want to address their addictions.

Each year, people who live on the streets cost cities millions of dollars. Government entities, whether cities, counties, states, or the federal government, support short-term shelters, pay for emergency room visits, and finance municipal and county jails.

To curb these costs, many cities and the federal government support a “Housing First" approach to treating homelessness.

What is “Housing First"?

“Housing First" or “rapid re-housing" advocates argue that the homeless are best served by first finding permanent, stable and guaranteed housing. These advocates believe that permanent housing, rather than temporary, shelter-based homes, is instrumental to homeless people addressing mental illness and addiction.

Beyond Shelter, a non-profit agency dedicated to ending homelessness, explains that homeless families who are relocated to permanent housing are more responsive to finding jobs, ensuring that children are attending school, and recovering from mental illness than are those who live in temporary shelters.

“Housing First" projects do not discriminate against those homeless people who may be addicted to drugs or alcohol. Cities like Portland, Oregon have built housing projects dedicated to those people who are both addicted and homeless.

What problems can “Housing First" projects cause for addicts?

Getting the homeless population off the streets, out of shelters, and out of prisons is an important step to ensuring that those who experience homelessness can recover their lives.

Although the Housing First approach provides the homeless with housing, it does not always help those who move to the housing projects with their addiction problems. As long as the tenants are not disruptive or using illegal drugs in public, the housing authority will allow them to live in the apartments.

Many of the housing projects are “wet." For example, in these “wet" projects, residents who choose to use alcohol are encouraged to drink on patios with fellow residents. Social workers argue that drinking with fellow residents and friends can decrease the disruptive behaviors that stem from alcohol abuse.

Additionally, the residents who use illegal drugs like marijuana, crack/cocaine, or methamphetamine are also not always removed from the housing project. The residents must use these illegal drugs in private to stay, but as long as they are not disruptive, they will not necessarily be arrested or removed from the building.

In “Housing First" projects, those addicts who want to quit are surrounded by drug and alcohol use in their homes, making it more difficult for them to stop using. Even if the men and women living in these buildings actively pursue treatment, they are constantly surrounded by the drugs that they are trying to quit using, which makes quitting all the more difficult.