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Drug and alcohol addiction among the homeless is a significant problem in the U.S. As separate issues, both substance addiction and homelessness affect Americans in alarming numbers. However, there is a direct connection between the two. 

In 2014, the National Alliance to End Homelessness stated that over 578,000 people in the U.S. were sleeping on the streets or in emergency shelters.

On the one hand, being homeless can be overwhelmingly stressful, and many people abuse substances to cope, causing them to fall into addiction. On the other hand, major symptoms of addiction include the loss of control and the ability to manage a person's life. Consequently, many people lose their ability to support themselves and end up homeless. Either way, the addicted homeless people need help and treatment to get out of their difficult situation. 

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty states that the top five causes of homelessness are:

  1. Lack of affordable housing
  2. Unemployment
  3. Poverty
  4. Mental illness and the lack of needed services
  5. Substance abuse and the lack of required services

Alcohol Use Disorder and Homelessness

Alcohol is the most accessible substance to the homeless, leading to a widespread alcohol use disorder (AUD) problem. Alcohol is relatively cheap and purchased legally at many locations. Additionally, panhandling is the most common source of income for the homeless, and it is not difficult to come up with the money needed to maintain a steady supply.

According to The National Coalition for the Homeless, 38 percent of homeless people have an alcohol addiction, and 26 percent are addicted to other substances.

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Commonly abused drugs by the homeless

Drug abuse among homeless people is significantly higher than the rest of the population. Often, homeless people will use whatever they can get their hands on, including various opioids and marijuana. However, the most prevalent are heroin and crack cocaine. These drugs are cheaper, highly potent, and more readily available. 

There are findings that some homeless people come up with enough money to support a $100-200 per day drug habit. Surprisingly, this can be accomplished through panhandling in some areas. Theft is high among people with drug addiction to support their habits as well. Additionally, many homeless people have jobs but use all their money for drugs.  

When addiction is the cause of homelessness

Many people find themselves homeless as the direct result of their addiction. People who are addicted put themselves at great risk of losing their job because they cannot stop themselves from abusing substances. Most companies have zero tolerance for substance abuse in the workplace. Additionally, there are consequences of abusing substances outside of work because people lose their ability to function or fulfill their duties when at work properly. 

The result is they lose their job. It is tough to find or keep a future job while suffering from addiction.

In 2017, CareerBuilder stated that 78 percent of workers live paycheck to paycheck. What this means is most Americans do not have enough savings to stay afloat if they lose their job. Hence, people dealing with addiction can find themselves homeless very quickly.

Additionally, addiction causes major problems with friends and family members. Often, they lose the much needed support from the people closest to them.

When addiction is the effect of homelessness

Many people fall into addiction after they become homeless. This is because homeless people face a lot of significant stressors, including:

  • Loss of a home 
  • Lack of shelter
  • Loss of dignity many people are dehumanized by society
  • Having little to no money
  • Hunger
  • Violence they are many instances where they deal with physical or sexual abuse
  • Losing hope - there are several obstacles in the way of getting themselves off of the streets

With such major problems, people often turn to substance abuse to cope. While they may receive temporary relief, it only drives them deeper into addiction and makes it extremely difficult to seek and gain employment. 

Additionally, the areas populated by the homeless are often dense because they are relegated to certain areas or shelters. Therefore, people find themselves firmly around many other addicted homeless people, which makes it difficult to avoid. 


Experts have mixed opinions on how to get addicted homeless people substance-free and back to being productive members of society. Most agree that it is challenging to get clean while remaining on the streets. Some believe that the first and most crucial step is to get housing through various programs to stay on the right path. However, others believe that without treatment first, it is nearly impossible. 

There are several barriers in the way of getting treatment for homeless people that desperately need it. These barriers include:

  • Lack of insurance or Medicaid
  • Lack of transportation
  • Having no documentation
  • Lack of supportive services
  • Abstinence-only programs
  • Long waiting lists for much-needed programs
  • Untreated mental disorders
  • Lack of awareness of available programs
  • No storage
  • Programs that have other specific requirements such as no companions of the opposite sex or no pets

Addiction treatment facilities are available and offer various treatment options, depending on the facility. Examples may include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy — they help people learn the relationship between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors so they can learn to adjust and make positive decisions. Develop strategies that prevent alcohol or drug use.
  • 12-Step Programs — Usually, they can get set up with a sponsor while they go through the steps.
  • Faith-Based Programs — Programs with the central idea of connecting to a higher power.

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Resources +

National Coalition for the Homeless. https://www.nationalhomeless.org/publications/facts/addiction.html

Association, Press. “More Homeless Women Use Heroin and Cocaine than Men, Study Finds.” The Guardian, 4 Aug. 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/aug/05/more-homeless-women-use-heroine-and-cocaine-than-men-study-finds.

Friedman, Zack. “78% Of Workers Live Paycheck To Paycheck.” Forbes, 11 Jan. 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/zackfriedman/2019/01/11/live-paycheck-to-paycheck-government-shutdown/.

issues., Cynthia. “Truth Talk: 74% of Homeless People Are NOT Drug Addicts - Invisible People.” Invisible People, 2 Jan. 2020, https://invisiblepeople.tv/truth-talk-74-of-homeless-people-are-not-drug-addicts/.

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