I never anticipated writing about homelessness and addiction from firsthand experience. Just like everyone else, I had plans and dreams for my life; they certainly did not involve living in a homeless shelter and endlessly searching for pills to inject into my veins.
As lucky as I am to have made it out of the pain and darkness of addiction, every night of the year there are countless people without a roof over their head or a bed to call their own – people struggling with serious substance abuse, addiction and mental illness.
According to the 2013 survey on hunger and homelessness, published by the US Conference of Mayors, there were approximately 610,042 people found to be homeless on any given night in January 2013. Of those, 65 percent were living in emergency shelters or transitional housing, and 35 percent living in unsheltered locations such as abandoned buildings, under bridges or in cars.
Sadly, there is a huge unmet need for shelter. Of the cities surveyed, 71 percent reported having to turn away families with children, and 66 percent reported having to turn away homeless individuals due to lack of beds.
Homelessness should be an impossible issue to ignore, yet in many US cities today, there is an increasing number of laws criminalizing those who desperately need our help – laws against feeding or providing food to homeless people, panhandling and sleeping in public spaces. The seemingly selective enforcement of laws against the homeless continues to perpetuate the homeless cycle, thus reinforcing negative stigmas and stereotypes. Ironically, jailing the homeless is more expensive than providing supportive housing.
Relatively new initiatives by cities which provide various levels of supportive housing are beginning to take hold. Known as Housing First, this model takes a recovery-oriented approach. First, the program focuses on providing permanent housing, then on adding support needed to improve physical, mental and social health – such as addiction treatment and social, community and vocational services.
Addiction is frequently a precipitating factor to homelessness, as was the case in my situation. After my husband and I were both prescribed heavy painkillers for physical injuries, with next to no monitoring by our family physician, I began to use my prescription opiate pills to numb more than just the physical pain. Not surprisingly, I found the pills were effectively providing relief from my emotional pain; I didn’t realize how dangerous this path would be.
From taking the medication as prescribed, to chewing it, crushing and snorting it, to eventual intravenous use, it didn’t take long before every last cent was spent on pills. Anything of value was pawned or sold, and we exhausted any support we could find. There was absolutely nothing left and nowhere to go.
It’s a frightening reality to face, especially as a young woman. Unfortunately, I am far from the only woman who has had to confront homelessness. At first, I was terrified at being one of the few young women in a shelter predominately full of men. The first two weeks were rough. It was impossible for my husband to always be by my side. Being homeless was bad enough; but trying to cope with my active addiction and dealing with incidents of harassment from men in the shelter, I was beyond overwhelmed.
However, after settling in to this new situation, I met some of the kindest people I have ever encountered in my life. Sensing my tension and unease, my bunkmate’s husband, one of the older men, went so far as to tell everyone that I was his daughter; hence the others in the shelter were not to bother me. People in the shelter were willing to help us with anything they could, even if it meant leaving themselves with little or nothing. These were regular, everyday people who like so many across the country had lost everything.
Shockingly, typical street drugs are no longer the only drugs causing problems. Prescription drug abuse in the US is reaching epidemic proportions, with more Americans falling into the darkness of addiction.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 2011 statistics show that in the US one person dies from a drug overdose every 12.9 minutes – 113 every day, enough to fill over eight 747s a month. Another 6,748 are treated in emergency departments daily. Imagine, over eight 747s crashing every month!
The numbers are rising. Drug overdose is now the leading cause of injury death in the US, with more deaths attributed to pharmaceuticals than heroin and cocaine combined.
Rather than punishing drug users, we must provide access to comprehensive harm reduction services. This would include needles exchanges, sterile supplies, safe-use educational materials; the use of methadone and buprenorphine, and naloxone kits. HIV and communicable disease testing must be readily available. In addition, community resources, detox facilities, treatment options, recovery support groups and the like are crucial to returning these citizens to a functional life.
Until they are ready, willing and able to seek the treatment needed to begin the journey to recovery and sobriety, these services would help addicts use safely, reduce communicable diseases and eliminate criminal behavior.
Supportive housing should not be contingent on sobriety, abstinence, employment or mental health status. We all deserve a safe place to sleep and call home, regardless of the problems we have or the level of support we may require. By providing those in need with the proper substance abuse treatment, access to lifesaving harm reduction services, discrimination-free healthcare and community support, it is possible to end the vicious cycle of addiction and homelessness.
K. Lanktree is a freelance writer, former IV drug user, methadone patient and harm reduction advocate. For more information, check out her blog at http://www.studioLonline.net.