Homelessness in the United States was on a steady decline since 2010. The economic recession was ending, and homelessness seemed to be on a downward trend until 2017 when it rose for the first time in years. 

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 553,724 Americans experienced homelessness in 2017. Various factors contribute to homelessness including poverty, family dysfunction, economic instability, and a lack of affordable housing in a given area. However, mental illness and substance use disorders are significant factors in many cases of homelessness. 

Around 15 percent of the population of homeless people in the U.S. are considered chronically homeless, which means they live without a fixed, adequate place of residence for a year or longer. The majority of this 15 percent have disabilities, mental health problems, or substance abuse disorders that prevent them from maintaining employment.

Homelessness also exasperates these issues by causing feelings of guilt, shame, and inadequacy in the people it effects. Homelessness is often a cause of consequence for issues with deeper roots like alcoholism. To address homelessness, these mental health problems have to be addressed.

But what options do homeless people have when it comes to finding treatment for substance use disorders and mental health?

Substance use disorders are a significant factor in chronic homelessness, especially among young adults. Between 39 and 70 percent of homeless young adults abuse drugs or alcohol. Substance abuse is two or three times higher in homeless young adults as compared to non-homeless people of a similar age. Marijuana is the most common drug among homeless populations, but amphetamines, cocaine, and heroin are also common. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, substance use disorders are often a cause for homelessness. Addiction can disrupt your relationships, make it difficult for you to maintain employment, take a toll on your finances, and lead you into legal difficulties. People who are addicted to drug or alcohol often find themselves estranged from their family with limited resources. Plus, most of the resources they receive are put toward maintaining their addiction.

Why do people continue to use when addiction is contributing to health, social, financial, and legal problems?

Addiction is a chronic disease that affects the reward center of the brain. Your reward center is designed to take notice of activities that produce a reaction of feel-good chemicals in our brain like dopamine and serotonin. Stimuli like delicious meals and warm beds can produce these effects, and your reward center helps to encourage you to seek them out again. 

However, addictive drugs can also produce these effects, causing powerful compulsions to use again and again. Your brain will treat something like heroin use like it’s a life-sustaining activity like drinking water or eating. When you don’t get heroin, your brain will cause powerful compulsions as if you were starved for it.

Options to Address Homelessness and Addiction

There is an abundance of addiction treatment options in the United States. You have more options if you have a health insurance policy, but if you don’t, some organizations can help address substance use disorders, mental health problems, and homelessness. The federal government provides several avenues to address homelessness, but you may also find assistance from local charities and churches that work to end homelessness in a specific city.

If you can find local resources or if you can’t afford private treatment, options are still available to you. It’s important to realize that addiction can be debilitating when it’s left untreated. If it has led to homelessness and financial problems, it needs to be addressed to lead to lasting change. Effective addiction treatment will address multiple needs including medical, psychological, social, financial, and legal needs.

Options to help address homelessness and addiction include:


PATH, or Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness, is a federal block grant that is given to all 50 states and U.S. territories to help aid homeless people get treatment for mental health and substance use problems. PATH is a program that’s headed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) that’s specifically intended to address serious mental illnesses. The program provides funding for outreach services, screening and diagnosis, habilitation and rehab, community mental health services, substance use disorder treatment, referrals (for health care, job training, education), and housing assistance. You can contact PATH providers to learn more about this program and how it might be able to help you.


SAMHSA also provides assistance through its Cooperative Agreement to Benefit Homeless Individuals (CABHI) programs that are aimed at helping people with behavioral health problems find housing. CABHI is a competitive grant, which means that it’s awarded to nonprofit organizations, governmental entities, and schools that submit a proposal to receive the money. It’s funded by both the Center for Mental Health Services and the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. The grant provides assistance for substance use disorders, serious mental illness, serious emotional disturbance, and co-occurring substance use and mental health disorders.


SAMHSA also has a program called SSI/SSID Outreach, Access, and Recovery (SOAR) which helps people who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness gain access to Social Security disability benefits. People who have mental health problems or medical impairments may have a hard time gaining access to supplemental social security income or social security benefits.

Veterans Services

A significant portion of the homeless population are veterans, especially veterans of the Vietnam War. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, around 11 percent of the homeless population are veterans. Alcohol is the most common substance of abuse among veterans, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a common mental health issue among homeless veterans. SAMHSA and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs both have resources to help veterans who are struggling with mental health issues, substance use disorders, and homelessness. VA has outreach programs that seek out veterans who need assistance, and it aims to connect veterans to housing solutions, health care, and employment opportunities. VA also works to expand these opportunities on a local level.

Seeking Addiction Treatment

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction that has led to homelessness in the past, it’s important to address the underlying issues that may contribute to your substance use disorder. To learn more about addiction treatment and the options that are available to you, speak to an addiction treatment specialist at Serenity at Summit.

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