Addiction and Homelessness

A Resource Guide for Displaced People Battling Substance Use Disorder

Andrew McKenna - Expert Content Editor

Updated: 06/06/2023

Addiction and homelessness share a close and toxic link. Data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) indicates that over 40 million Americans currently meet the criteria for substance use disorder, a number that doubled in recent years due, in large part, to the COVID 19 Pandemic. At the same time, over 580,000 Americans live on the streets on a given night.

Not surprisingly, these populations – the addicted and the homeless – overlap in a very real and genuine way, It’s important to understand the circumstances and factors that drive this association in order to provide as much help as possible to those in need. If you or someone you care about is facing homelessness or economic hardship due to substance use, learn how you can get the help you need to start rebuilding your life in recovery.

How Do Addiction and Homelessness Intersect

We’ve all seen the antiquated depictions of the person who lost everything because of their drinking and drug use and ended up on the street among society’s “unsavory” elements. While these representations are largely reductive and fail to tell the whole story, there are multiple ways that addiction and substance use disorder can lead to homelessness.

On the one hand, chemical dependency can drive behavior in relationships, work, and family dynamics that ultimately lead to homelessness; on the other, individuals who find themselves on the street for different reasons often turn to substance abuse as a means of coping, making money, or finding a sense of community. These two larger all-encompassing scenarios play out differently among a variety of groups, depending on age, socioeconomic background, and other factors:

Adult Homelessness and Substance Abuse

Adults are the largest group of Americans living on the streets, and the largest group of Americans who experience substance use disorder. They find themselves in these situations for a variety of reasons that are usually largely unique to their individual situation. Some of the primary reasons why include:

Family Dysfunction and Estrangement

The family unit is one of the earliest and hardest-hit casualties of addiction. Alcohol or drug dependency robs a mother or father of their ability to be there for their families, provide for them financially, and build trust with them. Marital separation and divorce compelled by spousal or parental substance use disorder can, and often does, lead to homelessness for both men and women. Additionally, adult children who are still living at home and abusing substances can create irreparable harm to their relationship with their parents and siblings, usually by engaging in patterns of lying, manipulation, aggression, and other troubling behaviors that make it impossible for them to live in the same space anymore. As substance use persists, other members of the household may no longer feel safe or respected, prompting them to take drastic action and remove the addicted family member from the home.

A study on the financial impact family members face due to a loved one’s substance use disorder reveals:

  • Eighty-two percent of respondents experienced adverse financial effects due to their loved one’s substance use disorder.
  • Forty-eight percent reported their loved one drained their savings or retirement accounts.
  • Forty-three percent reported additional medical or legal expenses.
  • Forty-two percent said their loved one sold assets to gain access to cash.
  • Eleven percent said they filed for bankruptcy.

This damage can be hard to overcome or forgive, even among the closest family members when it reaches a tipping point that often leads to severance of the relationship and consequentially homelessness.

Job Loss and Financial Difficulties

You can only nurse a substance use disorder for so long before it catches up to you. Eventually, alcohol or drug abuse will impact your professional performance, slowly eroding your ability to do your job and be relied upon at work. Over 13 million American drug users are employed, and nearly nine percent of them have full-time jobs. There is a clear link between substance abuse and unemployment, with substance abuse’s deleterious impact on work performance, absenteeism, and overall professional stability.

Finally, it’s common for severely addicted people to blow through their savings and retirement, and even sell their assets in support of their drug and alcohol use. Lack of employment and little to no financial resources very often leads to unstable living situations.

Homelessness and Substance Abuse among Children

Between 1.6 million and 2.5 million children live on the streets, and nearly a quarter of them are unaccompanied. Substance abuse factors into juvenile homelessness in a variety of ways and can be either the cause or effect of the situation.

Factors that can lead to co-occurring homelessness and substance use among children include, but are by no means limited to:

  • Family Dysfunction
  • Trauma and Abuse
  • Economic Insecurity
  • Parental Abandonment

As with adults, children can either find themselves homeless because of substance use or abusing substances because of homelessness. In the case of the first scenario, toxic family environments or just basic strained relationships within an otherwise stable and loving home can lead to teens running away and finding themselves with no place to live. In the case of the second scenario, children can find themselves turning to substances as a means of fitting in, making money, and trying to appease whatever semblance of a family or social structure they manage to cultivate on the streets. Many children have been forced to act as couriers for higher-level street dealers in exchange for food or a place to stay, and end up using and becoming addicted to drugs.

In a comprehensive report from the the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, Clinicians’ Network, it was revealed that estimates on the proportion of youth experiencing homelessness, who in turn use alcohol and/or drugs vary widely, ranging from 28% to 81%. Youth without homes who use substances are more likely to have co-occurring mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and conduct disorders, and to engage in high-risk behaviors, including risky sexual activities. Engaging with these children on a meaningful level to intervene and affect change can be especially difficult due to inherent fear and distrust of institutions who have failed them in the past and other factors.

Homeless Doesn’t Mean Hopeless: Resources for Homeless and Addicted Individuals

Although being homeless and battling substance use disorder can seem like a desperate and inescapable predicament, it’s important to realize that help is readily available for you or your loved one.

Below is a list of resources where you can seek assistance:

You can also go to your state’s housing authority to look for shelters or assistance programs that can provide temporary housing resources.

Substance Abuse Treatment Resources for the Homeless

The best way to find a free or reduced-cost substance abuse treatment resources to help you or your loved one get back on your feet is to investigate state-funded rehab programs for alcohol or drug abuse. These programs are subsidized by your state’s Medicare or Medicaid dollars and can help you or the person you care about to begin your recovery. They offer detox, rehab, and support services for patients with no or limited means. They also provide mental health services to help you address co-occurring psychiatric issues you may be experiencing. We are ready to help you or your loved one find a program in your state that takes Medicare or Medicaid so you can break the cycle of substance abuse, economic hardship, and homelessness.