In September, The Stranger published an opinion piece on The Slog by a man named Allen Benson disputing public perceptions of people experiencing homelessness and calling on then-mayoral candidates Jenny Durkan and Cary Moon to make concrete proposals on how to end the crisis in Seattle.
At the time, Benson was homeless, living in a clean and sober shelter. At no point in the article did he say he partook of drugs or alcohol. He didn’t need to; the information didn’t relate to the substance of the piece.
Still, this was the first comment: “‘No money equals no home,’ says the guy who spent all his money on drugs and now lives in [detox] halfway housing. Prioritize a place to live for yourself and your family over your drug abuse and if you’re still struggling, I might listen to some suggestions you have on combatting homelessness.
“And yes, people who have worked hard and made forward-thinking life choices deserve to not be affected negatively by your shit choices and bad habits,” the troll continued. “Empathy is a valuable human emotion, but it’s for shit when it comes to making hard choices about solving problems.”
The view that people experiencing homelessness are there because of drug and alcohol addiction — or “shit choices and bad habits,” as this nihilist Tony Robbins put it — is common.
It was advanced at the Seattle City Council when the councilmembers considered new policies around vehicle residency with people wondering who would pay for their homes when they were burned down by a “rolling meth lab.” It pops up in the conversation around safe-consumption sites, which a group of petition-bearing housed people feel is “enabling.” People in positions of authority are not much better — former public safety adviser and city attorney candidate Scott Lindsay repeatedly referred to homeless people whose “brains had been hijacked by drugs.”
If they just stopped using, the line of thinking goes, homeless people would be on a path to stability.
This suggestion is a distortion forged out of anecdotes wielded as facts that ignores the main cause of homelessness: a lack of affordable housing.
According to the 2016 Homeless Needs Assessment conducted by the city of Seattle, 45 percent of respondents said that they did not use any drugs.
But, because apparently it needs saying, not all homeless people are addicted to drugs or alcohol. In fact, according to the 2016 Homeless Needs Assessment conducted by the city of Seattle, 45 percent of respondents said that they did not use any drugs.
Only 29.4 percent reported alcohol use, 12.2 percent reported using heroin and 5.5 percent reported using crack. Authors of the report note that the category “other drug” — constituting 20.6 percent of respondents — could include marijuana users, because that drug was not specifically surveyed.
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And what of housed people? A rigorous survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in 2014 found that slightly more than half of people in the United States above the age of 12 had consumed alcohol in the past month, leaving 47.3 percent of people teetotaling.
The number of homeless people reporting illicit drug use does appear higher than in the general population. Only 10.2 percent of people over the age of 12 were estimated to have used “illicit drugs,” according to the SAMHSA survey.
The two surveys are not apples-to-apples comparisons, but they are the best information available and they suggest a reality that is at odds with the image of the substance-abusing freeloader painted by those who wield the terms “Freeattle” and “addict” like righteous weapons.
So why do people buy into this pernicious myth attaching homelessness to drug abuse?
“Homelessness and addiction have become conflated due to the fact that the most ‘visible’ homeless individuals are often those dealing with behavioral health challenges.”
“Homelessness and addiction have become conflated due to the fact that the most ‘visible’ homeless individuals are often those dealing with behavioral health challenges,” said Jackie St. Louis, who conducts outreach with the Navigation Team, a group of police and outreach workers who connect people living in encampments with services.
St. Louis works with homeless people struggling with addiction and other mental illnesses by dint of his job, and he pointed out that while some became homeless as a result of substance use, that’s not the story for all. Some report that they began using as a coping mechanism for the stresses and pains of homelessness.
Chloe Gale, program director at REACH, an outreach organization under the umbrella of Evergreen Treatment Services, acknowledges the chicken-and-egg nature of substance use and homelessness, but she doesn’t like that narrative because it confers a judgment value on when a person began using.
“I don’t think people are better or worse whether they started using after or before,” Gale said.
Instead, she focuses on why the recrimination comes when it’s a homeless person engaging in such use.
Data show that housed people use substances, too. Roughly 8 percent reported a substance abuse disorder. It’s just that homeless people have to conduct those behaviors in plain view.
“The definition of what we consider ‘problematic use’ changes when you don’t have a home to use privately, or safe spaces,” Gale said.
That means it often takes more for housed people to reach the “problematic use” threshold than an unhoused person, because any use conducted in the cold light of day is considered “problematic.” Even legal drugs like alcohol and marijuana must be consumed indoors or within permitted outdoor areas to be used legally, an option homeless people do not have.
It’s one of the many ways that society criminalizes homelessness by making practices illegal only when they are conducted without the benefit of walls to hide from prying eyes. And those who believe that lacking the resources to rent or own a home can be attributed to behaviors rather than the lack of housing, economic disparities and poor health-care access can choose to believe their eyes, whether or not they can take in the whole picture.
“Despite what the research says, people tend to believe what they see,” St. Louis said. “They are not seeing people sleeping on a friend’s couch, but surely are seeing the encampments and trash every time they drive, walk or ride by.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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