Recently, I was in a bar on a Sunday afternoon, chatting with some strangers when the subject of homelessness came up. I mentioned the benefits of a housing-first model, to which one man — visibly intoxicated, eyes glassy — responded that a lot of them “are junkies. … They gotta get clean first.”
I’ve heard this so many times. You’ve probably heard it. There’s an entrenched morality to housing — and a belief that formerly homeless individuals must somehow earn a roof and a bed. If they really wanted it, they’d get clean. After all, it was their addiction that brought them to a tent in a greenbelt, right? Right?
Not always. In a highly-cited fact sheet from the National Coalition for the Homeless, the complex relationship between homelessness and substance abuse is laid out clearly.
“Substance abuse is often a cause of homelessness,” the paper reads, though the author later adds that “in many situations, however, substance abuse is a result of homelessness rather than a cause.”
This idea — that some people become homeless as a result of substance abuse, while others begin abusing substances because they’re homeless — is what prompted me to ask the guy at the bar: If you were homeless, wouldn’t you use?
He chuckled, finished his drink and agreed. These exchanges aren’t always so civil, but I do find it useful to pose the question to people. If you were sleeping outside, wouldn’t you seek comfort in any way possible? And wouldn’t sobriety be a lot easier once you weren’t afraid, cold, wet, hungry and isolated?
We know that the population of folks sleeping outside is disproportionately made up of BIPOC individuals, queer folks and survivors of abuse, violence and trauma. Those identities often intersect with substance use in the housed population. Which means that expectations of sobriety are not only unrealistic, they’re prejudiced.
This propensity for substance abuse is compounded by the sheer volume of substances to abuse. In a country where opioid over-prescription is the stuff of congressional hearings and must-watch Netflix documentaries, we’ve reached a broad consensus that addiction can happen to anyone, at any time, in any family, in any neighborhood. Most of us know someone who is living with substance use disorder — or maybe we’re holding onto our own sobriety one day at a time.
So the next time someone tells you that substance use is the reason someone doesn’t deserve housing, ask them that simple question: If you found yourself outside tonight, alone, afraid, traumatized: Wouldn’t you do something to numb the pain, too?
Read more of the Aug. 4-10, 2021 issue.