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How We Can Help the Homeless with Substance Abuse

Most people know that substance abuse is a significant issue among the homeless community, but it’s not always understood why. Compassion is even less common for the homeless who struggle with addiction. It’s easy to write off a homeless person who is clearly struggling with addiction because we see these issues as “wrong,” but if we take a closer look at our hearts in those moments, we might find we are simply trying to let ourselves off the hook. We don’t always want to go out of our way to help someone, especially if we feel they aren’t making the “right” decisions. 

The truth is, we all struggle with sin. I actually talked about this with my friends Mike and Linda Curb on a recent episode of the Real Hope podcast. To reference Scripture, it’s easy to point out the speck in our brother’s eye and neglect to see the plank in our own. Mike says he admits he felt similarly when he first began his record company.

“In the start, I think I wasn’t very sensitive,” he says of his earlier days. “Being the son of a Baptist FBI agent, drugs were not on the table. Alcohol was not on the table. I was pretty tough. I said, ‘I don’t want to be around this sort of thing.’ I was very insensitive.”

But Jesus’ message of compassion for the hurting and the lost soon sank into Mike’s heart in a new way as he considered these issues in prayer.

“I started praying about it and started thinking, ‘wait a minute — the way to solve the drug problem is not to bash people — not to criticize people — but to help them, to minister to them,’” he remembers.

Addiction and the Homeless Community

Tragically, the statistics surrounding addiction within the homeless community are pretty staggering. Though it’s difficult to get exact statistics with a population like the homeless, the National Coalition for the Homeless found that 38 percent of homeless people are alcohol dependent, and 26 percent are dependent on other chemicals.

It’s tricky to parse out the specific reasons for these statistics because there are people who fell into addiction because of the hardships of homelessness and people who fell into homelessness because of the struggle with addiction. 

“The difficult conditions of living on the street, having to find food, struggling with ill-health, and being constantly away from loved ones creates a highly stressful state of being,” writes Krystina Murray for Addiction Center. “Individuals suffering from homelessness may additionally develop psychiatric conditions in response to the harsh lifestyle of feeling threatened by violence, starvation, and lack of shelter and love.”

Add to that a lack of resources for getting help or options for healthy coping mechanisms, and the results are understandable.

The National Coalition for the Homeless also states in a paper published in 2017 that — on the opposite side of the coin — addiction can certainly also lead to homelessness:

“Addictive disorders disrupt relationships with family and friends and can cause job loss. For people struggling to pay their bills, the onset or exacerbation of an addiction may cause them to lose their housing.”

Regardless of which comes first, the problem is significant. If we want to help our homeless friends, those who struggle with addiction must be included.

Addiction as an Illness

One way to cultivate more compassion for people who struggle with addiction, particularly with our homeless friends, is to remember that addiction is an illness. And it’s an illness for which most homeless people do not have the adequate resources to overcome. Even if they are able to get sober once or find the resources to go to rehab, any person who has struggled with addiction (or has a family member who has) knows constant support and encouragement is needed to stay sober long-term. 

None of us are immune to ever finding ourselves in hardship. It’s important to remember that we are all sinful. As so many of us have struggled this year financially and physically through the pandemic, we have certainly been reminded of this in 2020. 

The word of God says that we have all sinned and fall short of the Glory of God (Rom. 3:23) and yet, God shows his great love for us in that while we were still sinners, He died for us (Rom. 5:8). Not after we got our act together, not after we stopped messing up — while we were still sinners.

Aside from addiction being a result of the sinful nature we all share, it’s also a quantifiable illness.

“Addiction does not occur because of moral weakness, a lack of willpower or an unwillingness to stop. This finding stems from decades of work investigating the effects of substance use on the brain,” writes Jillian Hardee, Ph.D. for the University of Michigan. A 2016 study from former Surgeon General Vivek Murphy, M.D. confirmed what researchers have known for years, she says.

The article goes on to explain that the brain gets used to the pleasure and satisfaction felt by the alcohol or drug. The constant need to one-up that feeling becomes compulsory, until the person reaches a point where they cannot voluntarily choose not to partake in it “even if it means losing everything they once valued.” Ironically, the result becomes an inability to take pleasure in anything, because the impact on the “reward network” in the brain diminishes over time.

How to Love Our Homeless Friends with Addiction

My advice to others who want to love on our homeless friends, especially those struggling with addiction, is to remember that we are all sinners and to remember that each person you encounter, whether they’re on the corner of the exit ramp or taking shelter in a coffee shop or eating a meal at the mission, is a real person. Look them in the eye when you speak to them, learn their name. Cultivate compassion in your heart this way and pray that God would show you how to love them well.

I believe that in addition to helping with physical needs, we also have to share the hope that we have in Jesus. Without that hope, we’ll never be able to help people find true healing long-term. My friend Mike spoke to the importance of this as he remembered something that frustrated him about homeless initiatives he observed in California.

“I would look at some of the homeless shelters and because they didn’t have God in the shelters, they had no way out. No one was lifting them, no one was ministering to them, no one was praying for them, they were just left,” Mike shared. “You’re not only providing them a place to live but a place to worship. You’re giving them a place where they have a chance to get out.”

We start with providing physical needs, by fulfilling the words of Matthew 25:35:  “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.

I like to remind people that the Scripture does not say “I was hungry, and you told me to get a job” or “I was a stranger, and you told me I should’ve made better choices.” Compassion is the key to helping our homeless friends with addiction, walking with them to provide for their physical needs and helping them find the hope that truly changes hearts. We can do a lot of things to help others, but God is the only one who can change hearts.

Listen to the most recent episode of Real Hope with guests Mike and Linda Curb on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.