The Relationship between Homelessness and Substance Abuse

When many people think of “homelessness” they think of people living in cardboard and tent homes, people standing on the corner selling newspapers or asking for money, worn-looking people with dirty faces and clothes, people pushing shopping carts full of their belongings, mentally ill people roaming the streets talking to themselves or having a conversation with someone that isn’t there, drug addicts, alcoholics and/or lazy people who simply do not want to work. While this definition may be true for some, it is not true for everyone. In general, most people do not want to be homeless.

In fact, most people who are homeless would rather stay the night at a shelter then sleep on the street, but there is one problem – most shelters do not have enough space for the majority of the homeless that want to stay there. If a homeless person does not arrive at the shelter at a certain time of the day they are turned away due to lack of space. Furthermore, homeless people need to have a permanent address in order to seek employment so getting a traditional 9 to 5 job can be quite challenging, especially when you do not know where you will be from day to day, night to night.

In general “homelessness” refers to people who do not have a stable/permanent home (apartment, shelter, house, townhome, condo, etc.). A homeless person may not have a home because he/she lost his/her job due to the downturn of the economy or he/she may be mentally ill and released from the hospital without a place to stay or family support or a homeless person may be a veteran who is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition, most homeless people are ashamed of the way they look and live. They would love to have a hot shower, clean clothes, food to eat and a soft bed to rest their head upon at night. The majority know that they are dirty, smelly and worn-looking, but their first order of business is to survive.

Truth-be-told, life can be quite depressing for the homeless person living on the street. It is not surprising that some homeless people try to forget their situation with drugs and/or alcohol. Witnessing the disgusted looks from those with homes and jobs and having to constantly protect their belongings can create a constant strain on a homeless person’s psyche. This strain is often leads to overwhelming stress, depression and anxiety. Some homeless people self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol because reality is just too much to take.

Is there a Relationship between Homelessness and Substance Abuse?

Homelessness is often associated with drug and/or alcohol abuse or addictions. There appears to be a relationship between homelessness and substance abuse, but it would be dishonest to assert that these two factors are always linked. In fact, most homeless people do not become substance abusers and most substance abusers do not become homeless. The United States has experienced an increase in homelessness in the last 4 to 5 years, which cannot be accredited to substance abuse alone.

Homelessness has a variety of causes. It is a complicated problem that is not easily rectified. As mentioned previously, homeless people who turn to drugs and/or alcohol, often do so as a way to block out the hardships they are experiencing. It is hard to determine home many people turn to drugs and/or alcohol once they are homeless and how many substance abusers become homeless as a result of their drug and/or alcohol addictions.

Oftentimes, homeless people, especially those with substance abuse problems are unable to receive government services. In fact, they are often overlooked and frowned upon when seeking government aid. Unfortunately it is not uncommon for the homeless to be ignored and fall through the cracks. In reality, the homeless problem persists with no effective resolution in sight.

What percent of homelessness people have a substance abuse problem?

Approximately 37% of homeless people report that they are alcohol abusers or alcoholics and 27% report that they are drug abusers or drug addicts. These statistics show a link between homelessness and substance abuse. Statistically, substance abuse appears to be more prevalent amongst the homeless then in the general population. It may appear that the primary cause of homelessness is drug and/or alcohol abuse, but this is not necessary true in all cases. When determining the cause for homelessness and substance abuse, one must also take into account other important factors. Each case of homelessness and substance abuse must be examined from an individual perspective. One must look at the individual’s history, experiences and external factors that may have contributed to the homelessness and substance abuse.


Healing Hands. (2003). A comprehensive approach to substance abuse and homelessness. National Health Care for the Homeless Counsel, 7(5), 1-10.

Johnson, G. & Chamberlain, C. (2008). Homelessness and substance abuse: What comes first? Australian Social Work, 61(4), 342-356.


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