Substance Abuse and Homelessness Essay Example



Homelessness is one of the most prevalent issues in Canada, especially in Vancouver. It is an epidemic in our community that affects everyone, not just the people on the street. A survey conducted in early 2020 by the City of Vancouver found that 2,095 residents of the Metro Vancouver area identify as homeless and of those 2,095, 60 percent suffer from addiction ("City of Vancouver"). Substance use is also a common stereotype associated with homelessness, however, to what extent does homelessness correlate to addiction? The consequences of substance use are serious and can cause detrimental effects to users’ personal and professional life. A review of the available literature suggests that there is a slight correlation between homelessness and addiction, however, no direct causation has been proved. Substance use can be both a result and a factor of becoming homeless. Results compose of social aspects/street culture, trying to numb the pain of being living on the street, and to be less vulnerable to street life. Pre-existing substance use can lead to becoming homeless including an individual's socioeconomic status and the effects of substances making it difficult to perform professionally in workplace environments. 

The correlation between homelessness and developing substance use disorders resulting from being on the street are social aspects and street culture, trying to numb the pain of living on the street and being less vulnerable to street life. Drug and alcohol use are not direct consequences of being homeless, however, Mission Harbour Behavioral Health, a substance abuse recovery centre, states: “‘recent studies from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) have found that about 38% of the homeless are dependent on alcohol, while a further 26% abuse drugs’ ” (Mission Harbour Behavioral Health). Living on the street and not having the stability of a home to go back to can be very stressful and can in turn, cause many homeless people to resort to substances. As Carlyn Zwarenstein, a freelance journalist specializing in substance use, writes in her article for Filter Magazine, many homeless people turn to addictive substances like alcohol or opiate drugs in an attempt to try and numb the pain they experience as being homeless; they are using these substances as a coping mechanism for trauma, getting through a hard day, and trying to keep warm through the night (Zwarenstein). Social aspects and streetlife culture can pressure homeless people into experimenting or worsening drug use as well as environmental impacts. Zwarenstein also writes, “alcohol or drugs like opioids can reduce the experience of cold or provide a sense of comfort” (Zwarenstein). Agreeing with Zwarenstein’s statement are Nicole Pankratz and Eugenia Didenko at the Centre of Addictions Research of BC at the University of Victoria. In their article published in Heretohelp.bc.ca, they argue that “a person might lean on alcohol or other drugs to help get through a tough night or face unpleasantness during the day - shame, fear, hunger and pain are just a few of the challenges a homeless person may experience” (Pankratz and Didenko). The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, a Canadian homelessness research institute, writes in “Substance Use and Addiction” about the stigma between being homeless and using addictive substances ("Substance Use and Addiction"). This stigma comes with a negative connotation and can give newer homeless youth and adults the idea that abusing substances is permitted and normalized, and it can also alienate those people from getting the help that they need ("Substance Use and Addiction"). Drug abuse often has a negative implication and lots of societal judgement follows,  so substituting “substance use” allows for users to not feel judged and more accepted in our society ("Substance Use and Addiction").  This is also shown in Rebecca Gomez, Sanna J. Thompson and Amanda N. Barczyk’s academic journal article published in Substance Abuse, “homeless young adults are defined as individuals between 12 and 24 years of age who are without stable housing and who identify with the culture and economy of living on the street” (Gomez et al.). Substance use increases among homeless people who surround themselves with other people who use substances; if these impressionable young homeless people surround themselves with other homeless people who do drugs, they are more likely to engage in drug use, and vice versa (Gomez et al.). Didenko and Pankratz also support Gomez and her team’s theory of the social aspect and street life culture has a part to play in the correlation between homelessness and addiction, “nor is it surprising to learn that alcohol consumption is key to acceptance in the homeless subculture, and thereby supports the causation theory” (Pankratz and Didenko). Moreover, homelessness can lead to substance use because of homeless culture, as a way to cope with trauma and to appear less vulnerable in their environment.

The correlation between becoming homeless as a consequence of substance addiction includes socio-economic statuses and the effects of substances making it difficult to perform in professional environments. Douglas L. Polcin, a senior scientist for Alcohol Research Group, writes in the Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless: “alcohol and drug problems can be causes and consequences of homelessness, as well as co-occurring problems that complicate efforts to succeed in finding stable housing” (Polcin). This supports the idea that addiction neither proves to be a cause or consequence of homelessness, rather it can be both. Already using addictive substances makes someone more susceptible to becoming homeless. Experiences that could contribute include getting kicked out or evicted from their housing situation because of addiction and not having the ability to act professionally in a workplace environment. Therefore, substance abusers cannot keep a steady job and can lead to that individual becoming homeless: “again, society’s reactions to drugs cause these problems to a significant degree” (Zwarenstein). Amanda Lautiere, a senior web content editor, writing for Sunrise House Treatment Centre, an American Addiction Centre located in New Jersey, in her article, “Addiction Among the Homeless Population” acknowledges the struggle of people with substance abuse disorders to find safe and affordable housing (Lautieri). Many rely on public assistance for survival and when those get defunded, it can lead to homelessness. As well, it is a fact that some housing assistance programs require drug tests and will not allow individuals with addictions to use their programs (Lautieri). Many people who do have substance use disorders often have trouble maintaining jobs because they cannot maintain professional in a work environment (Lautieri). In A. Verdejo-García, M. Pérez-García, and A. Bechara’s academic journal article, “Emotion, Decision-Making and Substance Dependence: A Somatic-Marker Model of Addiction'' as published in Current Neuropharmacology, Verdejo-Gracia and their research team show that these individuals tend to choose the short-term reward option without thinking of the long-term consequences (Verdejo-García, et al.). Substance users have similar brain scans to patients with orbitofrontal cortex lesions and share similar decision impairment, implying exactly what substances can do to the brain: “results provide strong support for the hypothesis that impaired decision-making in SDI is associated with altered reactions to rewarding and punishing events, as well as altered elicitation of emotional signals that help forecast or anticipate the consequences of future events” (Verdejo-García, et al.). Some individuals dependent on alcohol struggle to distinguish certain facial expressions and cannot process expressions normally and similar results were proven in opioid-dependent individuals (Verdejo-García, et al.). Pre-existing mental health issues also come into play with becoming homeless. Mental illness could be a result of abuse, trauma or genetics and these all have a role in homelessness. In Krystina Murray’s article, “The Connection between Homelessness and Addiction” published in Addiction Centre, a substance rehabilitation database, she states: “reports suggest 33% of homeless people battle mental illness. Sources cite mental illness as another major cause of homelessness, which often leads to drug and alcohol abuse” (Murray). Therefore, pre-existing addictions can lead to homelessness because of economic status and the effects of substances making it difficult to behave professionally.

To summarize, a review of the literature indicates that addiction is neither a result of being homeless nor does homelessness spur from addiction, it can be both a cause and a result.  Addiction resulting from homelessness can be caused by homeless street culture and social peer pressure. Some homeless people also use substances because they wish to numb themselves to the physical and mental pain that comes along associated with homelessness. Pre-existing addiction can lead to homelessness because substance abuse makes it difficult to perform professionally in the workplace. Substance usage also takes a toll on socio-economic status and housing stability, therefore, losing one’s home can be a consequence of addiction. The research shows some correlation between substance use addiction, however, there is no direct causation between the two.