Our View: Substance abuse in the homeless community should not be stigmatized

Last week, while driving through Rome, I passed a homeless man standing on the side of the road. He held a large sign that read “Homeless. Not on drugs. Need money for food and for warmth.” The sign was a pleading cry for help, defended by his denial of being on drugs, as if that would be the deterrent from anyone helping him on a night when it was supposed to get down below freezing. The sad thing is that for most, the assumption of drug use alone would be enough to keep driving, pretending that the man was not standing there, writing him off as simply an addict who was beyond help. 

We’ve all been told to never give money to the homeless because they’ll just buy drugs or alcohol with it. Somehow, that warning became a national sentiment that has been passed down from parent to child, slowly conditioning us to view the idea of addiction and substance abuse as something detestable, something we should play no part in. The homeless population only suffers greater from this assumption because of the visibility of their need for assistance, whether it be food, clothes, shelter, etc. and their dependency on others for help. However, we use the fear of drug and subsistence use as an excuse not to help, when really that’s all the more reason. 

The demonization of drug use has caused our society to turn a blind eye to the problem, taking an uninvolved approach by either ignoring the issue or looking at is through a lens of criminalization. By doing so, our country has only worsened the opioid epidemic, which is now at an all-time high. Since 1990, drug overdose deaths have almost tripled and almost 21 million Americans have at least one addiction, according to the Addiction Center. Data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration shows that substance abuse and overdose disproportionately impact homeless people. 

Reasons for this have been linked to the stress of living on the streets and inconsistency in living situations and search for food, warmth and other basic necessities. Many turn to drugs and alcohol as means to cope with their situations, or drugs and alcohol are the cause of their situation. A 2015 study by the United States Conference of Mayors, a nonpartisan organization for cities with populations exceeding 30,000 people, has research from 22 cities and determined leading causes for homelessness in those cities. The study found that 35 percent of adults claimed substance abuse was the leading cause of their homelessness and that 10 percent of homeless families claimed drugs or alcohol. Substance abuse isn’t just an issue among vagrant adults, though. A study by the American Journal of Public Health found that 26 percent of vagrant youth and eight percent of displaced youth in shelters were recreationally using crack cocaine. 

The negative social stereotypes toward substance abuse prevent any visibility of the issue, which is needed to provide assistance or rehabilitation to those affected. Often, the homeless are blamed and seen as lazy for being unemployed; their own actions are seen to be the reason for their current situation, making them undeserving of any assistance. However, addiction in the homeless population, which is often accompanied by one or more mental health disorder, can cause occupational impairment, leading to unemployment. In turn, people lose access to the health insurance they often need to afford treatment for both substance abuse and mental illness. This vicious cycle highlights just one of the several flaws in our society’s tactics at combatting substance abuse, let alone mental illness and homelessness. 

Now, at a local level, communities are taking measures to confront the drug epidemic facing our nation. Substance abuse among the homeless is a problem that is alive and well in the Rome/Floyd community. The 2017 homeless census by the Department of Community Affairs published that there were an estimated 37 unsheltered homeless people and 25 homeless people in Floyd County on a given day. The Davies Shelter website, however, claims much larger numbers, 200 unsheltered and 115 sheltered men alone, not considering sheltered women and children. However, these numbers cannot take into account the number of people who are just one or two paychecks away from losing their homes, a reality more people face than you would expect. To meet these needs, Rome has resources such as the Davies and Ruth and Naomi Shelters, which are transitional homes to provide resources needed to work towards stability. Other programs like the Community Kitchen and Bagwell Food Pantry provide food and groceries throughout the week. Steady housing, a welcoming, non-threatening environment and stability are just a few factors that can alleviate the stress that homeless people batting substance abuse face every day. 

However, resources for the programs are often crowd-funded and some even operate solely or partially on a volunteer basis. So, get involved. Simply showing up and offering to be of assistance can go a long way. You can donate your time, money, even prepared meals, at various outreach programs throughout Rome. Doing so aids the facilities and those dependent on them, and you may even sensitize yourself to the reality of homelessness in our community. 

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