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Homelessness—it’s about the drugs stupid!

October 13, 2014
This Venn diagram is simply to sugest the overlapping factors that contribute to homelessness.

A Venn diagram to suggest some overlapping factors contributing to homelessness.

On this the second day of the eighth annual Homeless Action Week (formerly Homeless Awareness Week) in Metro Vancouver, I despair of ever seeing an end to homelessness.

Actually I don’t believe there will ever be an end to people falling into homelessness and people should probably stop looking for one. Instead I believe we should be building a sort of social escalator that will continually help lift as many homeless people as possible back into the mainstream of society so they can be self-supporting, contributing citizens.

This would ultimately involve dealing with as many barriers as possible: literacy, depression, skills training — the third world conditions of reservations—but if this sounds too ambitious, we could just start with the drugs.

Nothing contributes as much to the misery and social harms of homelessness as street drugs do. And nothing else stands in the way of empowering people quite like drug addiction. Take away addiction and all the other issues of homelessness become so much easier to deal with.

The region’s band-aid solution of trying to simply put drug-addicted homeless people on social assistance and warehouse them in social housing is woefully shortsighted.

First it can’t end homelessness and neither will it sustainably slow it down. It is not a stepping stone to real independence but more of a dumping ground for misfits that threatens to  become a bureaucratic empire of the poor—a kind of gulag full of people with no expectations beyond their next government assistance cheque or hoot, whichever comes first.

Furthermore it does little to even reduce the appearance of homelessness. Paradoxically it will actually help keep the homeless people it houses roaming the streets for years to come.

You can take the person out of the street but…

A panhandler I know serves to illustrate my point. This person has been homeless for years but managed to get off the street and into social housing in the Downtown Eastside within the last two years.

In recent months they’ve been in and out of housing for various reasons. In November they will be out on the street again, except they are already mostly sleeping outside.

Probably they’ll get back into housing but it hardly matters. Inside or out, they still live the life of a homeless person—they need to make money to support their drug habit and that means panhandling. Same as it always has.

All this turkey wanted for Thanksgiving


What a panhandler’s hard work earns them — an expensive wee baggie of crack.

This morning, seeing that I was having my breakfast in the McDonald’s on West Broadway Avenue around the corner from South Granville Street, this panhandler asked if I would watch their bags for a few minutes—they wanted to go pick something up.

Vancouver drug addicts can order their drug by phone and have them delivered. In the Fairview neighbourhood, some of the common drop-off zones are within easy walking distance of the intersection of West Broadway and South Granville.

On returning, knowing that I like to blog such things, this panhandler plopped a miniscule blue plastic baggie on my tray with the exclamation: “fifty-five dollars!”

They were telling me they had just spent Can$55. on a baggie of crack cocaine that couldn’t even cover half a thin dime. However, they explained, it could cover their drug habit for the day.

Another friend suggested that the panhandler may have exaggerated—that the bag may have only represented $30-worth-of crack cocaine.

That’s not much more than a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit. And not a whit smarter.

When does Drug Addiction Action Week start?

Monday was Thanksgiving in Canada, a good occasion to express how thankful I am that I’m not a drug addict—though I am homeless.

It’s also now Homeless Action Week in Metro Vancouver—a week of seminars and exhibits and outreach meant to have some positive impact on homelessness—a good time to wonder where the treatment of drug addition enters into the efforts to end homelessness.

It doesn’t appear to overtly be on the agenda of any of the 29 events that make up this year’s Homeless Action Week.

I strongly believe that it should be. Drug addiction is both a major generator of homelessness and a reason why being homeless is so awful for so many people.

I believe that a lot of the worst aspects associated with homelessness: mental illness, street disorder and petty crime, are actually an overlay caused by addiction to street drugs.

Think of any aspect of being homeless and you will find that drug addiction magnifies its awfulness and makes the overall problem of homelessness that much more difficult to solve.

And therefore I seriously doubt that simply sticking homeless people in social housing—with their drug addictions intact—will solve anything.

Addiction, like misery, loves company

Social housing alone doesn’t change the fact of people’s addictions.

To buy the street drugs they need, formerly homeless addicts must continue to engage in all the same activities they did before they were given social housing: panhandling, binning, collecting scrap metal, prostitution, or whatever.

Some “former” homeless people only use their social housing intermittently, preferring to still sleep on the streets where the money they need to buy drugs can be found and where the friends they like to do the drugs with are also to be found.

Housed and addicted street people will continue to do their drugs in alleys with other street people (who may themselves be housed). The housing is like a good sleeping spot—a particularly cozy and secure parkade.

Social housing by itself doesn’t change behaviour, people do.

But even if they want to change their lives, street people in social housing will still probably have to fall back on the panhandling and/or binning they know how to do, in order to simply survive the month.

Particularly as getting into social housing can significantly slash a person’s social assistance.

I’m told that welfare recipients living in one assisted living social housing  complex in the Dunbar area have had their welfare reduced from $235-per-month, down to $60, because one meal is served each day.

The one formerly homeless binner I know who now lives in this complex has more incentive than ever to go scrambling for returnable cans and bottles every day.

Simply housing homeless people who have drug and alcohol drug addictions doesn’t necessarily get them off the streets.

Homelessness and drugs: chalk and cheese or what?

In the minds of most people, drug addiction and homelessness are closely linked. And in fact an awful lot of street people use or are addicted to drugs like crack cocaine, crystal methamphetamine and heroin.

But whatever led these men and women to start taking street drugs in the first place—the high, the pain relief, the peace of mind, the need to forget painful memories, or plain, old boredom—the drugs always end up taking more than they give.

In all important regards drug addiction actually conspires with circumstances to make homelessness a more difficult existence than it needs to be.

The days and nights of the walking dead

The common street drugs all seem to have the effect of turning addicts’ attention inwards. People who are high seem to become selfish and self-absorbed creatures.

It’s bad enough that some of them will lie, cheat and steal to feed their habits but under the influence, every street addict I’ve known becomes remarkably unconcerned about their surroundings; oblivious to the people around them and—often as not—forgetful of anything they possess.

As a consequence they become their own worst enemies. They lose their money and their stuff and through their ignorant, selfish behaviour, alienate everyone around them, losing any sympathy other people might have had towards their plight as homeless men and women.

And thanks to street drugs, homeless drug addicts also slowly lose their minds.

You have to be crazy to be homeless!

Everyone apparently knows—or certainly believes—that mentally ill people often become homeless.

That is to say that it’s taken for granted that circumstances can bring people into the world with mental and physical challenges and that some of these people will, at some time in their lives, fall through the cracks of Canada’s social safety net and end up living on the street.

That is sadly true but where is the discussion and awareness that street drugs and homelessness also create mental illness?

They do. Believe me. The progressive neurological damage of street drugs magnifies all the negative emotional aspects of homeless to create an ideal incubator for serious mental illness.

Every long-term homeless person I know who has also had a long-term addiction to street drugs  is clearly suffering cumulative neurological damage.

I watch with dismay as the handful of drug addicts I know slowly lose their mental faculties.

I’m dismayed because I’ve known these men and women for years and because I’m as certain as I am of anything that the same degradation is happening—has happened—to countless homeless people I’ll never know.

And there’s nothing on the horizon to suggest that it won’t keep happening forever.

The elephant in the room

Some of worst problems associated with homelessness are clearly problems of drug addiction but, for whatever reason, we can’t seem to stop the drugs from flowing.

I believe addressing addiction to street drugs would do as much to alleviate the harms of homelessness as social housing.

I think getting homeless drug addicts off the street into housing and off the street drugs and into work-related programs should be hand-in-hand priorities.

How this should be done exactly I don’t know. Perhaps Metro Vancouver could hold a week of seminars and discuss it.

As things stand, I do not believe that simply trying to warehouse homeless drug addicts is eliminating—or will ever eliminate—homelessness. Click the image to enlarge it.

  1. Slowcrow permalink

    Once again, very valuable and logical observations, from a unique perspective (thank you for your endurance). Re: the Venn diagram. Where do poor people fit? Seniors? People working, but unhoused? In some (most?) folks minds, if you are ‘homeless’ , unhoused, you only belong to those three large categories offered in that diagram. That is not only disrespectful, but could drive somebody crazy, or to drinking and drugging, or other suicidal activities. The ‘fact’ that you are in denial re: the reasons for your situation, can get very tiresome. Also, one person concept of what a home is, may not be what you want them to want. A cbc radio program Living Out Loud has an episode on today (Tuesday), called ‘Arthur’s story’, about a man who lived ‘on the streets’ of Vancouver 12 years, then got ‘housed’, and how that worked out………. It is on about 1pm PST, or i guess it would be available in their archives. Thanks again,


    • Actually, the poor were the entire white background. :->

      Venn diagrams are a little like herding cats. So many categories, so little space. I originally considered doing a big balloon of drugs and a little overlapping pimple of homelessness but I wanted to at least suggest some of the complexity — that’s what I think Venn diagrams excel at rather than precision. They can get quite tortuous with weird oblongs and ovals.

      In addition to the groups you mentioned I also omitted ex-cons, military veterans and aboriginals.


  2. Adding to your astute observations, I think a LOT of drug use initially is self-medication for the pain of abuse and resultant or pre-existing mental illness. A person that gets clean and sober, still has the mental illness.or PTSD etc and requires Trauma Treatment/Counselling,Mental Health treatment..Getting the boot fm the Psych Ward straight to the Streets..what do they think will happen. I would hate to be a Psych nurse at St Pauls. I’ve almost been homeless once..It may happen again.. as a Cln & S woman – couldn’t deal w it.


    • I agree with you about self-medicating.

      On top of all the standard reasons that keep people from asking for help (or directions, even), victims of abuse are even less likely to ask, for reasons of guilt, shame and even self-loathing.

      And, when you consider how two-faced society is about shaming and blaming the victims of sexual abuse — males victims are weak and female victims are just asking for it — well, it’s a wonder that anyone comes forward.

      For my part, I had a violent parent and spent a good part of my childhood in institutions. I experienced various degrees of physical and sexual abuse from the age of eight through 14 however, for whatever reason, being precocious and all, I quickly realized that it was never actually about me but rather all about the person inflicting the abuse. I was like a part that just happened to be there to fit into their head trip.

      So I fought back as I was able but what I had to take I never took very personally. I also had a little mantra about bad things always ending.

      So my past really is in the past, where it belongs. The only parts of my childhood that have a direct bearing on my homelessness now are the times that I spent as a self-supporting homeless kid.

      On the other hand, I’ve met dozens and dozens of homeless men and women, seemingly trapped emotionally in amber by the abuse that they suffered in their youth; forever replaying it, reliving it and regretting it — never getting over it.

      Maddening. Hence the attempts at self-medication (victim heal thyself) and there, I always tell myself, but for some luck, go I.


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  1. Homeless in Vancouver: Glenn and Shaun get kicked out of Marpole modular housing before they even move in – Richmond United

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