Denver, CO

Opinion: Drugs, alcohol rampant in Denver homeless housing

David Heitz
Thom Masat/Unsplash

The use and sale of illegal drugs is rampant in Denver homeless housing. It jeopardizes people who became sober while in jail or the state mental hospital.

But there’s no easy solution to the drug problems in buildings that house people experiencing homelessness. If everyone had to pass a urine test to get housing, a lot of people still would be left on the street. The philosophy of places like Colorado Coalition for the Homeless is to provide housing first and work on addiction treatment second.

Problem is, treatment never comes for many people living in homeless housing. Drugs are so prevalent there always is a dealer at the ready for meth, heroin, and crack. Most buildings have several drug dealers living in them, according to people I talked to for this story.

Occasionally people become very strung out on drugs. One person cut the main electrical supply line to the building where I live.

Deaths in building show magnitude of problem
Obi Onyeador/Unsplash

People have died in my building of drugs and alcohol. There was a fatal drug overdose a couple of months ago. Last year, a good-natured woman who always had a vodka bottle tucked in her bra passed away. Other heavy drinkers also have died.

The Coalition uses a harm reduction approach to addiction treatment. That is, it is celebrated when drug use is reduced, even if it is not halted altogether.

Many tenants trying to kick the habit

Many people who live in my building are trying to get off drugs or reduce their use, and several have enjoyed success in doing so. Most say things like they wished they never had tried heroin or meth. They talk about the sickness of coming down from opioids, saying it’s almost unbearable.

Some people regularly abuse drugs and alcohol and make a scene on the property. One woman last night became verbally combative when I would not give her money for a bottle of alcohol. She called me every name in the book.

A neighbor who always is drunk likes to blast his music night and day. If you complain to him, he threatens you. A couple of nights ago the police came and made it clear to him he is not to blast his music.

I become disgusted with people who are disruptive and menacing. There are too many people like that in my building. However, many have been evicted during the past year. Building management is trying to address these problems.
Mishal Ibrahim/Unsplash

Loneliness feeds addiction

A recent study looked at veterans in homeless housing who use drugs. The veterans obtained their housing as part of a Housing First model. So, what happened next?

“Once housed, people who entered from the HUD-VASH program with a history of substance use disorders continued to report issues with substance use,” according to a news release by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association. “(Yale researcher) Dr. Jack Tsai and his colleagues performed another study titled, Does Active Substance Use at Housing Entry Impair Outcomes in Supported Housing for Chronically Homeless Persons? In this study, comparing users with nonusers found that residents who use substances continued to use and have poorer mental health than nonusers in Housing First programs. But the substance use conditions did not worsen.”

According to Dr. Tsai, loneliness often feeds the addiction. When I went from the state mental hospital into housing for the formerly homeless, I, too, experienced much boredom and loneliness. When I started writing for NewsBreak a year ago, that all changed. I no longer suffer from boredom and have great purpose in my life.

Dr. Tsai says his findings raises questions about when and how to incorporate treatment into these programs. He noted some clinicians report the need for interventions to reduce social isolation or help people reintegrate into their communities.

“Clinicians tell us a lot of clients [in these programs] are really lonely,” Dr. Tsai explained. “When they are lonely and have a history of substance use disorders, they start to use substances.”

Meth users most likely to lose housing

Case managers play a big part in helping formerly homeless people quit or reduce their drug use. “Often, case managers play a key role in trying to help participants rebuild their lives,” according to the news release. “There are different approaches to case management. Many programs that have been studied involve case managers handling residents’ rent payments, which may boost housing success. He noted that some clinicians worry about the lack of treatment requirements in the programs and whether participants are learning what they need to become independent.”

A study published in the American Journal of Addiction showed that those who use stimulants are most likely to lose their housing. “Among illicit drug users, stimulant users have somewhat less successful housing outcomes than other active drug and alcohol users, though both groups maintained substantial housing improvements in low-demand housing,” the authors concluded. Low-demand housing is housing where sobriety is not a prerequisite.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here.

Denver, CO

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