Are all homeless people drug addicts?

By United Way of King County, on April 22, 2019 | In Fighting Homelessness, News

Lately, there’s been much dialogue, chatter—and sometimes one-way ranting—about how drug and alcohol addiction fits into our homelessness crisis.

It’s understandable how people can conflate the two issues. There is definitely more visibility than there was a couple years ago: more tents in inhumane settings, more disposed needles, more people we pass on the street who are clearly struggling with addiction.

Provocative pieces like Seattle is Dying that suggest that 100% of the homeless population has some sort of drug or alcohol addiction, don’t help.

So, what do we know about how addiction fits into our homelessness problem?

  • 21% of the King County homeless population cite drug or alcohol addiction as the cause of them being homeless.   

    People are tempted to poke holes in self-reported data, so yeah, that number may not be perfect, but it’s part of the Point In Time count, it’s gathered and reported responsibly—and it’s nowhere near 100%. Plus, studies have shown that self-reporting by people who are homeless pan out to be legit.

    And guess what? 25% of the King County homeless population cites job loss as the cause of being homeless, so by that number drug and alcohol addiction isn’t even the #1 reason.

    We know from the thousands of people we serve through Streets to Home and Jobs Connect, that drug addiction may very well may have been part of their experience, but we also see that many have no experience with it and being in poverty is the reason they aren’t housed.
  • One in nine Americans, 12 years+, have used illicit drugs in the last month. That’s illicit drugs (heroin, meth, misused prescription pain relievers)—it doesn’t include alcohol.

    Want to poke holes in that US Department of Health and Human Services data? Look around first. We talk internally: ‘how can that number be so high?’ Then we start talking about family and friends. Yep, 1 in 9 is easy to comprehend when we all start to think about loved ones who misuse prescription drugs, people we know who use marijuana regularly, etc.

    They have different resources, so they’re not always led to being unhoused. But our country is experiencing an opioid crisis— people who are homeless are not immune to this trend, nor is it limited to them.

The other thing we know about being homeless is that if you’re living on the street, self medicating may be the only way you can get through the day. No eye rolling here. This is real.
Tough day at work? Happy hour.
Can’t sleep? Sedative left over from your partner’s surgery.

The idea of curling up in a doorway for the first time and laying your head on the concrete—or placing your mat inches from the person next to you in a homeless shelter, using your backpack as a pillow in order to increase the odds that it’s still with you in the morning? You can imagine how much you’d want to escape.   

This is not making excuses for people—illicit drug use is not something we condone. But we are saying ‘we get it’. Our community is experiencing a homeless crisis. And more than 12,000 people in King County are experiencing their own personal crisis every night when they don’t have a place to call home.

We also have a opioid crisis. And, no, they are not the same thing.

So, what can you do?

  • Talk to people. Help dispel the myth that everyone who is unhoused is also drug addicted.
  • Be compassionate. People turn to drugs and alcohol for a lot of the same reasons other people do. For some, the results are just more visible.
  • Advocate. Become a champion for increasing access to housing.
  • Donate. Because of our donors, we are raising money and investing in proven solutions to the homelessness crisis — eviction prevention, diversion and employment programs for those who are homeless. Together, we are helping thousands exit homelessness every year.


Alison Powell
July 27, 2019

THANK YOU!!! I have this argument ALL the time, and I'm tired of the ignorance surrounding this issue. It genuinely drives me nuts having to point out the stats that are contrary to popular belief. Seriously. Thank you for this. I work at a shelter and many of our folks don't use substances of any kind.

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