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A Personal Story Of Homelessness And Alcohol Abuse

James has not had a place to call home for over 2 decades now. Adopted at the age of 6, he left his home in Puerto Rico and journeyed to the US with a new family, never to see his birth parents, who passed away before he was 7 years old, and his 2 siblings again. Now 56 years old, James struggles with substance abuse, particularly with alcohol, and moves from shelter to shelter. By collecting $8 a day, his daily goal, he can afford some daily necessities and transportation. Like many experiencing homelessness, he’s tried to quit drinking multiple times, but it’s been challenging without a proper support system and treatment. “Drinking is a way I can cope, you know? I just miss my family so much,” James told an Alcohol Help writer. 

Unfortunately, James’ situation is not uncommon. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 38% of people experiencing homelessness are dependent on alcohol, with alcohol abuse more common among older generations. Additionally, the rates of individuals experiencing homelessness have increased in recent years. According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), 580,466 people experienced homelessness in the US on a single night in 2020, increasing by 2.2% since 2019. 

There is a common misconception that all individuals in the homeless population abuse substances, or if they do abuse substances, it is a consequence of “poor judgment” or inferior morals. While alcohol abuse and homelessness can be correlated, the relationship between the two is nuanced and incorporates many intersectional factors like mental health, gender, race, and age. 

Relationship Between Homelessness and Alcohol Abuse: A Cause And Result

Alcohol abuse can be both a cause and a result of homelessness. Due to the volatility of alcohol use disorders (AUD), many relationships that individuals build over their lives can be severely maimed or eradicated. This support system is crucial for one’s quality of life and is a necessary resource in recovery from alcohol abuse. Additionally, individuals with an AUD may also struggle with keeping their jobs. As the bills continue to pile on, the onset or exacerbation of alcohol abuse may cause them to lose their housing. According to a survey conducted by the United States Conference of Mayors, 68% of the 25 cities surveyed reported substance abuse as the single largest cause of homelessness for single adults. 

In many situations, however, alcohol abuse comes as a result of homelessness instead of a cause. Once an individual is unhoused, many turn to substances like alcohol to cope with their situation. Alcohol poses as a reprieve from the uncertainty, worry, and pain that homelessness brings. However, alcohol abuse only exacerbates any preexisting problems an individual may face, plus alcohol dependency may hinder one’s chances of acquiring a job or achieving residential stability. Additionally, the motivation to cease alcohol use is low among the homeless population because they will prioritize survival over personal development. Finding food, water, or shelter takes precedence over finding alcohol counseling. Moreover, given the wide use and accessibility of substances among those experiencing homelessness, remaining sober is especially difficult.  

Who Experiences Homelessness?

It is essential to understand who is most at risk of homelessness to understand how alcohol abuse affects those experiencing homelessness. While every race, ethnicity, gender, and age group is affected, particular communities are over-represented in the unhoused population.  


  • People in families with children make up 30% of the homeless population.
  • 7.4 out of every 10,000 families are homeless.
  • 51% of children who are in the homeless population are under 6 years old. 


  • The national average for women without housing on any given night is 6.61 per every 10,000.
  • Over 92% of women experiencing homelessness have experienced severe sexual or physical abuse during their lifetime.
  • Nearly half of all women who are in the homeless population have a major depressive disorder.

The Youth

  • The majority of youth experiencing homelessness are age 13 or older.
  • Rates of alcohol and substance abuse are higher among youth experiencing homelessness compared to the general youth population.
  • Youth in the homeless population are more likely to have experienced physical or sexual abuse.

LGBTQ+ Community

  • 40% of youth in the homeless population identify as a part of the LGBTQ+ community.
  • LGBTQ+ youth who experience homelessness will experience 7.4 more acts of violence than their heterosexual peers.
  • LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness are more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.


  • 40,056 veterans are homeless on any given night.
  • Rates of homelessness are higher for veterans who identify as Hispanic, African-American, or Native American versus non-minority veterans. 
  • 70% of veterans experience substance and alcohol abuse.

Alcohol Abuse And Co-Occurring Disorders

Like the general population, for those experiencing homelessness, alcohol abuse often co-occurs with mental illness, also known as a co-occurring disorder. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), about 50% of those experiencing homelessness have a co-occurring disorder. In many cases, those who cannot receive treatment for their mental health will use alcohol or other substances to self-medicate. This compounding condition increases the risk for violence and victimization of those experiencing homelessness, and it contributes to the cyclical pattern of individuals passing between the criminal justice system, back to the streets, and to the emergency room. Without proper treatment that targets mental health and alcohol abuse, it is difficult for individuals to break this cycle. 

Making Resources Attainable

Overcoming addiction takes counseling, treatment, and support, but these resources are often critically unavailable to those in the homeless population. For those experiencing homelessness, finding the resources needed to treat or manage an AUD is challenging, as barriers to treatment include:

  • Lack of a support system due to the social isolation. 
  • Minimal education about treatment resources available for substance abuse.
  • The stigma around mental health and substance abuse.
  • Lack of financial resources or insurance.
  • Unreliable transportation to treatment. 

However, resources are available within each state to offset these barriers for the homeless population. SAMHSA’s Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH) funds services for people with serious mental illness experiencing homelessness. Every year, all 50 states receive PATH grants to be distributed to over 500 local public or nonprofit organizations. In 2017, 73,246 PATH-eligible individuals had enrolled in treatment for substance use disorders (SUD) or were referred to primary health care, job training, educational services, and housing. 

You Are Deserving Of Treatment

Before James walked away from our conversation, he smiled and said that he “was somebody.” When reviewing statistics on those in the homeless population, we often don’t picture the individual. But no matter your situation or where you call “home,” you are deserving of resources for the treatment of substance abuse or co-occurring disorders. For more information on treatment options, contact a treatment provider today.  

  • Author: Carmen McCrackin | Last Updated: May 31, 2022

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    Carmen McCrackin

    Carmen McCrackin earned a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Auburn and has over 3 years of professional writing experience. Her passion for writing and educating others led her to a career in journalism with a focus on mental health and social justice topics. Her main mission is to be a platform for all voices and stories, and to provide tangible resources to those seeking recovery for themselves or loved ones.

  • Medical Reviewer: David Hampton

  • Sources