The consequences of addiction can have ripples far beyond the addict’s immediate physical condition.  Addiction can make it impossible for a person to remain employed, which can, in turn, increase the likelihood that they will default on their debts, including payments for housing.  Sometimes well-intentioned loved ones and others in codependent relationships with addicts provide housing until they themselves are either fed up with the addiction or can no longer afford the financial burden.  This article discusses the relationship between substance abuse disorders and homelessness.

Why Are Some People Homeless?

The reasons for homelessness can be as complex as the origin of an addiction.  Among the possible explanations as reported by the National Coalition for Homeless are as follows.

  • Insufficient affordable housing
  • Lack of employment opportunities
  • Poverty
  • Foreclosure
  • Decreased government assistance
  • Health care debt
  • Intimate partner violence
  • Addiction
  • Other mental health conditions

How Many Americans Are Homeless?

In June 2010, USA Today reported data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.  The data indicated that more than 170,000 families spent time in homeless shelters during 2009, which represented a 7% increase from the previous year.  Volunteers who helped conduct the study estimated about 643,000 individuals were residing in shelters or on the street. 

How Many Homeless People Are Struggling With Alcohol or Drug Dependence?

According to 2003 estimates from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), just under 40% of homeless individuals were addicted to alcohol; an additional 26% were abusing or addicted to other substances.  These rates (i.e., among the homeless) are substantially higher than those among the general population. A major factor that predicted which substance a homeless person would use was age; older individuals were more likely to abuse alcohol whereas homeless adolescents and young adults had higher rates of drug abuse. The United States Conference of Mayors surveyed the three primary causes of homelessness in 25 major cities.  For single adults, substance abuse was reported as the number one cause by 68% of the cities.  For families, substance abuse was in the top three reasons only 12% of the time.  This suggests that addiction is more likely to lead to homelessness for individuals than for families.

What Is the Relationship Between Addiction and Homelessness?

On the one hand, a person who becomes homeless may attempt to cope with the new stressors of living on the street and the reality of their lives by numbing their emotional pain with substances.  This can begin a cycle that, because of already limited funds, is almost impossible for an addict to break.  On the other hand, as mentioned above, addiction can lead to homelessness when a person uses funds that should be put toward housing to buy drugs or alcohol, or when perpetual inebriation causes them to lose their job.  Another reality of addiction is that it commonly co-occurs with other mental illnesses (“dual diagnosis”) such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.  In fact, the National Coalition for Homeless estimates that 20% to 25% of single homeless adults have a persistent and severe mental illness.  In these instances, it may be difficult  (and irrelevant) to disentangle which problem – addiction or mental illness – is at the root of homelessness.

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