The Complex Interplay Between Homelessness and Drug Abuse

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Homeless | Drug Addiction | The Hills

Most organizations define homelessness as persons living in temporary shelters or other places not meant for human habitation. However you define it, homelessness has a profound impact on society. While creating accurate estimates for the total number of homeless is difficult, what is known is that these people are our relatives, friends, co-workers and sometimes even our protectors.

We’ve all heard stories of the homeless veteran who served two or three tours in Vietnam—or more recently, Iraq or Afghanistan. They come home to a civilian life they can no longer relate to and to a society that can no longer relate to them. But homelessness affects people from all backgrounds. A leading cause of homelessness in women is, tragically, the flight from domestic violence.

Of course, some who become homeless turn to drugs for temporary relief from the horrendous stress of the situation. Some of these people become addicts.

In this post, we’ll explore the causes of homelessness in modern society. We’ll look at everything from the rising cost of housing, to mental health care reform, mental illness itself and drug addiction. You’ll learn how mental illness can impact someone’s odds of becoming homeless, and you’ll find out why homelessness and drug addiction so often go hand in hand. Read on.

The Causes of Homelessness

Naturally, homelessness comes at high cost to individuals. But it’s also costly for communities and systems of care. Study after study has shown that communities benefit when they provide supportive housing to the homeless. Permanent supportive housing saves money overall through a reduction in crime, unpaid emergency room visits and risky drug use. When the rate of homelessness is high, emergency room visits increase and crisis response and public safety systems are utilized more often. It’s the taxpayer who ultimately pays these bills.

Permanent supportive housing provides the recently homeless with a way to gather themselves—to plan their next step. That may include a concerted effort to kick a drug habit or alcohol. Whether that takes the form of a 12-step program or residential drug rehabilitation, the result is a net positive for society.

But What Causes Homelessness in the First Place?

Many argue that homelessness results from the confluence of several negative events hitting at once. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • An increase in housing cost
  • Unemployment
  • An unexpected medical bill
  • Domestic abuse
  • Death of a family member they were dependent upon

But as any number of surveys will show, both mental illness and drug abuse are common in the homeless community. Indeed, the true root cause of homelessness has been debated for some time. There are two primary camps:

  • “Homelessness is caused by high housing costs.” This camp claims that the high cost of rent in most areas—to say nothing of the cost of actually buying a house or the difficulty of securing a mortgage—is the leading factor in homelessness.
  • “Homelessness is caused by drug abuse and mental illness.” This camp claims that homelessness is mainly driven by untreated mental illness, which may lead to drug use and abuse.

As is often the case, the truth may lie somewhere between the two.

It’s also possible that homelessness is underreported in the U.S. and other countries. If this is the case, it could make determining the root causes of homelessness more difficult. In order to reach consensus about the contributing factors, researchers must interview as many individuals recovering from homeliness as they can.

What’s more, the counts we do have may be imprecise. According to Thomas Bryne of Boston University, upward of 660,000 Americans may have experienced homelessness in 2017.

Housing Costs & At Risk Individuals

Before we delve into mental illness and drug addiction, let’s pause to examine the housing cost situation. According to HUD’s  Annual Homeless Assessment Report, homelessness remains a scourge in the U.S. California, from which the U.S. derives much of its GDP, reported a homelessness rate of 33 per 10,000 individuals.

According to the same report, areas in which folks pay around 30 percent of their income on rent can expect to see increasing homelessness rates. This is due to the fact that income growth is not keeping pace with rent increases over time. Indeed, the national average rent for a one bedroom apartment in the U.S. in 2016 was $752. That takes up the vast majority of a monthly SSI payment. In areas in which the cost of housing was significantly higher than average, such as the District of Columbia, the average rent for a one bedroom apartment was higher than the average SSI payment.

In 2016, the average annual income of someone receiving Supplemental Security Income payments was only $9,156. That’s 22 percent below federal poverty level. Individuals at or below the poverty line are significantly more at risk of becoming homeless. They’re also at greater risk of developing a drug addiction.

Homelessness & Mental Illness

In 1833, Worcester State Hospital opened in Massachusetts. It was the first mental hospital supported by state funds. In the 1940s, during WWII, conscientious objectors were ordered to aid in psychiatric hospitals to make up for staff lost to the war effort. In 1946, Life Magazine published photographs detailing the horrors of contemporary mental hospitals. Some of the photos depicted individuals strapped into strait jackets, with black bags over their heads. Others showed patients lying on the floor, seemingly incapacitated.

Then, in 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act. The act transferred the responsibility for mentally ill patients from the state to the federal government. But JFK died a month after the legislation was signed, and the government never funded the program the bill created. In 1965, congress established Medicaid and Medicare. But individuals in psychiatric hospitals were ineligible to receive benefits.

In California, in ‘67, Governor Ronald Reagan made severe cuts to the Department of Mental Hygiene, scaling the budget back by 10 percent and dissolving over 2000 jobs. By 1973, the number of patients in the state’s psychiatric hospitals had fallen to 7,000. In ‘67, these hospitals combined were providing housing to more than 20,000 patients.

Then, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Mental Health Systems Act. This act would have given teeth to the mental health care reforms JFK envisioned. In 1981, though, President Reagan repealed the act, replacing it with the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. This act seemed to settle the matter, as it made it clear that mental health care was the responsibility of the state, not the federal government.

What was the result of this ongoing political drama? Health care facilities progressively moved way from providing long-term care to individuals with difficult-to-treat mental illness toward a model that stabilized patients  and sent them on their way.

While it’s clear that these facility’s had their issues, what’s also undeniable is that the above political twists and turns forced a great many mentally ill individuals onto the streets. Once there, many of these folks came into contact with recreational drugs for the first time, which lead to a drug addiction epidemic among the homeless.

According to most reports, around 33 percent of homeless individuals also suffer from mental illness. Common mental disorders among the homeless are:

  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Severe anxiety

Individuals with schizophrenia may suffer from paranoia. They’re also prone to delusions, which can make it difficult to function. Individuals with bipolar disorder may struggle with alternating periods of mania and depression, which can make it hard to accomplish mid and long term goals.

Someone trying to cope with major depressive disorder may struggle with apathy or suicidal thoughts.

A man or woman with PTSD or severe anxiety, meanwhile, may struggle to fit in and may find it difficult to be in crowded, busy or noisy environments.

All of these struggles can make it harder to maintain a job, maintain relationships with others and avoid tempting quick fixes such as drugs or alcohol.

Homelessness & Substance Abuse

According to a survey commissioned by the United States Conference of Mayors, 68 percent of respondents reported that substance abuse was the ‘number one’ reason they were homeless. The survey polled respondents in 25 U.S. cities.

In 2017, there were over 500,000 homeless in the U.S., and homelessness is increasing among the young population. Sadly, homelessness and addiction seem to occur together quite frequently. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 38 percent of homeless individuals are dependent on alcohol, and 26 percent are dependent on other drugs. According to the same organization, drug addiction can be both a cause of and a result of homelessness. Embracing this simple logic allows us to sidestep the chicken or egg question altogether and focus on more pressing matters, such as why drug use contributes to homelessness at all.

Often, someone who would have avoided drugs gives in to temptation and curiosity when they find themselves homeless. Most addictive drugs create a strong—but temporary—feeling of euphoria, or high. Sometimes, the homeless turn to this high for stress relief, despite negative short-term and long-term consequences.

However, the brain adapts to the effects of hard drugs by developing tolerance. Once tolerance sets in, the drug user finds that they need to take more of a drug to get the same high. This leads to chemical dependence as the brain begins to rely on the drug for the release of various neurotransmitters, such as dopamine. Drug addiction makes it much harder to escape homelessness because whatever money a homeless person earns often goes toward food, drink or drugs.

There are several factors that contribute to youth homelessness, and many of these also contribute to addiction as well:

  • Growing up in an unstable home
  • Certain genetic traits that make substance abuse likely
  • Maladaptive responses to stress
  • Co-occurring mental illness
  • Physical, sexual or emotional abuse
  • Abusing drugs at a very young age
  • A history of running away from home

Homeless youths aged between 12 and 17 are at especially high risk of developing addiction to drugs. They’re more likely to experiment with drugs as a coping mechanism or through peer pressure. But addiction changes brain function, and drug addiction at such a tender age has lifelong consequences.

While drug addiction is a chronic condition, addicts can learn to manage it.

By far, one of the best ways to do this is through a residential drug rehabilitation facility that can help the patient detox in a safe environment. An accredited rehab facility can also teach powerful coping mechanisms, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, that can help the addict deal with cravings as they arise instead of giving in to them.

How Addiction Can Lead to Homelessness

Addiction is a vicious cycle. Often, drug use starts with experimentation. Or, it may begin as the result of peer pressure. But, as mentioned, hard drugs cause changes in the brain with repeated use. These drugs essentially hijack the brain’s reward pathway. A hallmark of some drug addictions is the budding addict’s desire to get high over and over, sometimes several times a day.

It’s not hard, then, to imagine how a drug habit can lead to homelessness. There are two main contributing factors:

  • Drug use threatens employment. If drug use affects your work performance, you may lose your job. You may also fail drug screening, which could give your employer cause to let you go.
  • Tolerance and chemical dependence leads to more drug use. You may be able to afford a drug habit initially, but tolerance means that your drug bill will increase over time. Many crack cocaine addicts started out snorting cocaine powder. As funds dwindled, these folks switched to crack, which is cheaper. But crack is much more addictive.

For the recently unemployed with a drug habit to support, homelessness is unfortunately a real possibility.

When to Seek Help

Getting Help | Drug Addiction | The HillsIf your drug habit has led you to wonder whether you may have a problem, you likely do. The fact is, it’s always better to seek help early on in the addiction process. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to regain control. There are a few self-checks you can do to see if you may have a substance abuse problem. Let’s take a look.

Do you:

  • Find yourself spending more and more money on drugs, even though you can’t afford to do so?
  • Do you often move money from other budget categories to fund your drug habit?
  • Have you recently gotten into trouble with friends, family or the law?
  • Have you recently lost relationships you cared about because of your drug use?
  • Do you often find yourself worrying that you’ll run out of your drug of choice or won’t be able to get more?
  • Have you ever been arrested for anything drug or alcohol related?
  • Do you drive or operate machinery while under the influence of any drug?
  • Have you missed work or school because of drug use, or have you failed a drug screening?
  • Has your housing, employment or finances ever been threatened by your drug use?

If any of these apply to you, you may have a substance abuse problem. An accredited rehabilitation facility can help you reclaim your life. The first step in the process is detox, wherein you’ll get the drug out of your system in a safe, medically-supported environment. Next, you’ll learn powerful coping mechanisms so that you can remain in control on a day-to-day basis.

Going forward, you’ll manage your addiction one day at a time. You’ll come to celebrate your sobriety and view it as a badge of honor. The journey isn’t necessarily fun, but we’ve no doubt that you’ll find it worthwhile.

If you’re trying to get addiction treatment for yourself or for someone you love when it comes to dealing with homelessness, reach out to The Hills for comprehensive and caring treatment that will help patients detox and learn the skills to cope with their triggers and their addiction.

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