Homelessness & Substance Abuse: Finding Possible Solutions to Help Those Experiencing Homelessness

When walking around major cities in California like San Francisco and Los Angeles,it is quite likely to see a range of debris including discarded needles lying within the streets. San Francisco and Los Angeles have been facing one of the problems related to the homelessness crisis: high rates of discarded heroin needles and feces. Substance abuse is one of the many problems plaguing the homeless community in that it is tough to quit due to chronic use. 

Substance abuse is often seen as a result of homelessness. Often, those who suffer from addictive disorders lose their jobs. In a study conducted by Eugenia Didenko and Nicole Pankratz,  researchers for the Centre for Addictions Research of BC University of Victoria,, two-thirds of those who were experiencing homelessness report that drugs and/or alcohol were the primary reason for their becoming homeless.

Didenko and Pantkratz’s report mentions that those experiencing homelessness would often turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with their situations. Those who are homeless will turn to drugs as a coping mechanism to try to overcome their difficulties. On the other hand, substance abuse exacerbates their issues and limits their capacity to find stable work and get off the streets.

To be someone experiencing homelessness while living in the streets to find food while constantly struggling to fight substance abuse and other mental health issues, as well as being shunned by family and friends, can be a burden to overcome. 

These things can create a highly stressful state for those experiencing homelessness, especially when using addictive drugs/alcohol to cope with their current situation. Although those experiencing homelessness would use substances such as alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism in dealing with stressful conditions, using them over time would make an individual highly dependent on them.

So what are the possible short and long-term solutions that can alleviate individuals facing substance abuse? According to USA Today, California’s  safe injection sites will not solve ending substance abuse. In 2019, fewer than 1% of program participants at one of Los Angeles’ main harm reduction facilities voluntarily entered a free drug rehabilitation program, showing that safe injection sites would be ineffective at turning drug users into recovered ones.

Safe injections do not  offer the treatment that is necessary to end substance abuse altogether. What is required is to have comprehensive treatment that would give those experiencing homelessness the chance to have a better life to end the addiction. According to a Los Angeles Times study, two-thirds of those living on the streets in Los Angeles County have a psychiatric or drug addiction condition, which is higher than official figures that exclude mental diseases that aren’t “long-term.”

A study published by a non-profit organization called Michael’s House shows that less than 25% of homeless individuals with alcohol and/or drug addiction are likely to get needed treatment. Housing access, a well-trained staff, client-centered treatments, integrated services, and comprehensive services were all found to be critical in providing successful substance abuse treatment to those experiencing homelessness.

Given that substance use is often deeply entangled within the social issue of homelessness, both of the problems must be treated simultaneously. Stable housing before and after therapy, according to Didenko and Pankratz, reduces the likelihood of usage recurrence.  Substance abuse treatment on its own is inadequate and needs to be combined with supported housing opportunities. 

Supported housing programs provide various services and housing, including mental health treatment, physical health care, education, career possibilities, peer support, and daily living and money management skills training.

Having an outreach and engagement staff, a choice of flexible treatment options and assistance to help those experiencing homelessness reintegrate into their communities are all features of successful assisted housing programs. Supported housing programs with substance abuse services would aid those experiencing homelessness in overcoming their addictions and regaining permanent housing.


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