We are all too aware of the effects substance dependency and untreated addiction have on our communities. Whether you have personally experienced the pain of addiction, lost a loved one to it, or simply witnessed its effects on our neighbors and their children, this national crisis affects all of us.
Criminalizing addiction is not enough to curb its effects on our communities. It is time to start viewing addiction like the disorder it is and provide the same compassion we give others suffering with mental health struggles.
Most are aware of the impact that poverty, traumatic experiences or lack of education have on increasing one’s likelihood of experiencing substance use disorder, but rarely do we focus on the role that housing plays. Unstable housing environments, including literal homelessness or simply those struggling to pay their rent, often lead to stress that can in turn lead to relapse. The chronic stress associated with unstable living situations can often lead to the kind of neglectful or abusive experiences identified as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).
Without proper intervention and care, families in this situation may face multiple generations struggling with substance use. Though substance use is shown to be more prevalent with homeless individuals compared to other populations, the two are very often not a direct correlation with each other; many substance users are able to maintain their housing, and many homeless individuals are able to maintain sobriety.
Those who are experiencing homelessness and substance use disorder have an especially difficult time achieving their recovery goals because their living conditions and the associated chronic stress limit the cognitive capability necessary for skills such as planning, time management, holding attention span, and regulating moods and behavior.
There is increasing evidence showing that treating housing as a foundation for those in recovery to build upon leads to a number of positive outcomes. This method of providing housing first with continued supports has been shown to increase participation in job training programs, school attendance rates and successful long-term recovery.
Moving clients into housing quickly is also shown to be more cost effective; research shows the longer a person is homeless, the more costly they are to house.
Yet despite this data, those facing homelessness and inadequately-addressed substance use disorders experience longer periods of homelessness, not only because of their own struggles, but because of a housing market that routinely discriminates against them. Substance use, even perceived substance use, and its subsequent criminalization have been barriers to various levels of housing for many of our neighbors.
Those seeking emergency shelter are often screened out for lack of a clean drug screen, and those searching for housing are often screened out by both private and public housing facilities for drug-related criminal backgrounds.
It’s going to take more than police, mental health providers and even case managers to heal and repair the wounds caused by addiction in our community. It is going to take our empathy and patience and remembering to love our neighbors as ourselves – even our addicted neighbors.
Destri Leger is the founder and housing case manager of HERE in Jackson County and the regional lead of the WNC Homeless Coalition.