Homelessness: Poverty, Addiction and Mental Health

Individuals who struggle with mental health problems or substance abuse disorders are more likely to be homeless or to live in substandard, unsafe housing. This holds true in nearly every nation around the world.

In the United States, the Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates that 30 percent of people experiencing chronic homelessness have a serious mental illness and about two-thirds of the homeless population struggle with a substance abuse disorder or another chronic health condition.

The European Federation of National Organizations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA) says that extreme poverty and homelessness are at crisis proportions across Europe, with housing costs rising much faster than income. According to FEANTSA, the problem is especially dire for young people in major European cities, including London, Barcelona, Paris, Dublin, Copenhagen, Warsaw, Berlin and Athens.

Addiction is a Cause of and a Result

Substance abuse is frequently a cause of homelessness. Many people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol eventually lose their jobs and are unable to afford rent or house payments. Broken relationships and divorce are more common and expensive legal problems often occur.

On the other hand, some people lose their homes due to health problems, job loss or other life changes. People who find themselves homeless may turn to drugs and alcohol to cope and find temporary relief. When people develop substance disorders, they find it more difficult to find work and are less likely to find a way out of homelessness.

Mental Health and Addiction Treatment for the Homeless

Addiction should be viewed as a chronic illness that requires treatment, support and counseling. Unfortunately, many drug and alcohol treatment centers and rehabs are ill-equipped to treat people diagnosed with both mental illness and addiction, a situation known as co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis.

All too often, providers that treat the mentally ill homeless don’t accept people with substance abuse disorders, while others offer addiction treatment but exclude individuals with co-occurring mental health problems.

Confronting an addiction is difficult for anybody, even in the best of situations, but it’s even more difficult for homeless people who are simply trying to survive from day to day. It’s difficult to find motivation to deal with an addiction when finding food and shelter are so exhausting.

Even if a homeless or mentally ill person manages to stop using, staying sober is difficult because drug and alcohol use on the street is so prevalent. Recovery is even more unlikely when homeless people lack a strong support system. Many are estranged from friends and family.

Frightening Results of Homelessness

Homeless people typically:

  • struggle with a variety of illnesses such as heart disease, respiratory disorders, frostbite, nutritional deficiencies, sleep deprivation and sexually transmitted diseases.
  • are more likely to suffer from liver disease, seizure disorders and other illnesses directly related to use of drugs and alcohol.
  • die much earlier, often in their 40s or 50s.
  • are at higher risk of victimization and trauma due to physical or sexual assault.
  • cycle between prison cells and emergency rooms.

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