Drug addiction in the homeless community
The homeless community are often exposed to a ‘perfect storm’ of factors that makes a drug addiction easily attainable. Environmental factors like trauma, abuse, stress, or economic factors like a job loss can lead to drug use fast becoming an addiction. Through using drugs, painful memories of past abuse or the stress of life on the streets can quickly vanish, leading to the start of a dangerous cycle of drug abuse. This vulnerability frequently attracts drug dealers too who can create a regular customer out of an addiction. Cannabis, heroin, crack cocaine and tranquilisers are the most frequent drugs of misuse with synthetic highs becoming increasingly popular in recent years.
Addiction creates a biological change in the brain and affects the thought processes someone goes through when making decisions. In this YouTube interview by AML FILM, Brett describes his heroin addiction as a ‘fulltime job’ and is what his motivation is purely reliant on. Prioritising the high over other aspects like treatment, accommodation, food, or health eventually takes hold. Access to resources is already very limited and so to maintain the addiction many take to crime to get money or food.
In terms of services, this becomes even more challenging with an addiction. Treatment requires committing to routine appointments or even carrying a regular supply of drugs. The desperation for the next high or even an unreliable source of food means that appointments are missed, prescription drugs are not renewed and ultimately treatment fails. Some do not even get to this stage as they may require identification or a fixed address, both of which they do not have.
Being homeless with an addiction also leads to an isolated life, absent in support, which is crucial in beating the addiction. With drug treatment services being consistently cut since 2015, resources are stretched and so successfully reaching out to these isolated individuals proves even harder. This all comes to a head when someone tries to access accommodation services. Not only may this cost money but some will not accept those actively using drugs, leading to them continuing the addiction, remaining on the streets, and endangering their lives further. The strong pull of addiction skews decision making and paired with the struggling functionality of some support services, the issue becomes exasperated and leads to a desperate situation overall.
Being homeless with a drug addiction can lead to serious health problems from its use. A stronger addiction means more reliance on the drug, increasing the health risk. As well as the dangers of overdose and contamination, viral transmission is equally as dangerous. Hepatitis B and C are diseases that cause harm to the liver and is common with drug users who share needles when injecting. Both are curable with treatment but not explicitly detectable, so it is often treated too late. Another common disease is HIV, again prevalent with those sharing needles. This interferes with the body’s ability to fight infection by suppressing the immune system. Consequently, even a mild infection can become serious with amputation or even death as a result. Exchanging sex for drugs also increases the risk of not only contracting HIV or Hepatitis C but other sexually transmitted diseases too. Moreover, respiratory problems arise from smoking drugs or during the drug cooking process.
However, drug addiction poses as much risk to mental health as to physical health. It has been reported that 42.6% of homeless people have a problem with mental health and substance misuse. Drug highs, especially done consistently and heavily, may trigger mental health problems or worsen existing ones. Depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia are reported to be the most common mental health problems in the community. Desperation to cure themselves of a mental health problem means that some ‘self-medicate’ using drugs and eventually develop an addiction without actually improving their mental health. The explosive rise in synthetic highs like spice have been particularly attributed to this in recent years.
Drug addiction comes with a mightily increased threat of death. Whether that be an overdose, poisoning through contamination or even an infection, being homeless with a drug addiction increases this risk significantly. Official figures provided by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) showed 40% of all deaths in 2018 amongst the homeless population of England and Wales were from drug poisoning, an average of 6 per week. In 2019 Scotland reported that more than half of its homeless deaths were drug related. The rising rates of homeless deaths from drug addiction have forced people to label it a ‘health crisis on the streets’ which is unfortunately not improving due to the many hurdles homeless drug addicts face towards sobriety.
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