Most Homeless People Are Not Drug Addicts

Ilana Quinn

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"Don’t give him any money. He’s just going to use it for drugs.”

My childhood friend and I were walking down a shop-lined boulevard, in search of some ice cream to appease the thick humidity drenching our thick wool tights and heavy kilts. It was a Friday afternoon and we were nearing the final stretch of exams. Sunlight warmed our backs as we passed eclectic street vendors and artsy coffee shops, accompanied by the fresh aroma of coffee grinds and baguettes and kebab that beckoned to us from each of the bustling businesses.

After school, we loved to walk along the streets of our city. Despite being poor fourteen-year-olds without much money to spend, we pretended we were sophisticated grownups with the ability to buy anything we wanted.

On that particular day, my mom had given me a crisp $10 bill to spend on an after school snack. She was fairly conservative with finances—and only gave me spending money on special occasions — so to have the thin paper between my fingers felt like a great achievement.

The man lying on the pavement was shockingly young, perhaps only a few years older than us. I did not immediately think of giving him the money, but my steadfast parents’ reminders to give to the needy melted my resolve.

As I elbowed my friend and began to reluctantly place the bill in his outstretched felt hat, a middle-aged woman with freshly manicured nails placed her hand on my arm. “Don’t give him any money. He’s just going to use it for drugs.”

Public perceptions of the unhoused

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Although the woman’s remark was not the first time I had heard the sentiment, her words still surprised me. Overtime, I became desensitized to remarks about not giving unhoused people money, because they would undoubtedly use it to fund their supposedly insatiable “drug habits.”

To my later shame, for a short period of time I even viewed unhoused people in the same way. When given the choice between giving an unhoused person spare change or a granola bar from the bottom of my backpack, I would choose the former.

Subconsciously, I avoided giving any spare change because I believed it would be used to fuel harmful addictions.

While of course many people do prefer to give food instead of money — which is common in an increasingly paperless world and most certainly a goodhearted thing to do — the pervasive idea usually behind this practice is harmful. Namely, many believe the unhoused will inevitably use money for buying drugs rather than basic necessities — a stereotype based on fear and mistruths.

Historical perceptions of the unhoused

Since the Great Depression, the image of the “hobo” has pervaded American popular culture. After the catastrophic Stock Market Crash of 1929, abject poverty forced many men to become migrant workers who travelled across the country looking for jobs. Their trademark became travelling by sneaking onto freight trains, highlighting their migratory lifestyles.

Despite mainly being eager to work to support their families and following written codes of conduct, these men were often perceived as unclean, lazy “parasites” unwilling to work. In the view of many elitists and members of the general public, these men were government freeloaders who deprived the United States labour force of valuable workers.

For many, these men posed a significant threat to the moral, economic and social order of the time. They did not have a fixed address and were away from their families for long stretches of time. Their clothes and appearances were unkempt and the subculture they formed as a means of survival was seen as subversive.

Despite these migratory workers not living this brand of lifestyle by choice, they were labelled by newspapers as the “tramp evil” or the “tramp nuisance.”

While John Steinbeck’s acclaimed American novel The Grapes of Wrath published in 1939 humanized and ultimately empathized with these migrant workers, his work was also denounced as “Communist propaganda” at the outset of the Red Scare.

In certain states, some copies of The Grapes of Wrath were even burned or banned. This was largely because of the author’s sympathy for the working class, but further exemplifies the American public’s long-standing discomfort with the unhoused.

False stereotypes

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Perhaps America’s historical mistrust of the hoboes of the early twentieth century explains the common misconception that unhoused people pose a collective threat to society.

Modern political pundits echo the antiquated sentiments of twentieth-century newspapers by depicting the unhoused as dangerous and unhinged — citing rates of high drug dependency within the homeless population. Whenever homeless encampments crop up in major cities, news networks depict them as threats to public safety. They are blamed for decreasing property values rather than human beings in need of care. In these situations, homelessness is considered synonymous with drug use, and subsequently, danger.

On the contrary, according to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, drug addiction is only at 26% within the unhoused community compared with the 19% in the general population.

While evidently drug addiction is significantly higher amongst the homeless, this can be accounted for by the obvious trauma endured by people living without shelter; in often perilous conditions.

In addition, drug addiction can easily coincided with homelessness, but people become homeless for a plethora of reasons ranging from unemployment to lack of affordable healthcare. And those who are unhoused because of drug addiction — which is classified by medical professionals as an uncontrollable illness — are no less deserving of assistance.

Final thoughts

The pervasive fear of unhoused people automatically using money for drugs is demeaning and unsubstantiated. Anxiety about homelessness has existed in North America for decades, notably during the Great Depression when fears about hoboes pervaded the newspapers, and remains prominent in the public sphere.

Although some unhoused people suffer from addictions — which does not mean these individuals lack agency or are inherently dangerous — most are homeless for a multitude of other reasons.

Instead of perpetuating false stereotypes predominantly based in fear, it is important to treat unhoused people as individuals. Although it is not always necessary to give money to unhoused people and providing food is a perfectly reasonable alternative, we should not assume homelessness is synonymous with drug addiction or instability.

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PoliticsMoneyHomelessnessSocial JusticeEquality

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A student writing about faith, mental health, history, literature, politics and travel.

Los Angeles, CA
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