Homeless and Addicted, Yet Surviving

By Salatha Helton 11/24/14

Which came first, the addiction or homelessness?


Down by the Sacramento River and throughout the streets, the smell of urine permeates the air. There are people who appear unhygienic. There are frail women and men pushing their shopping carts and carrying bags on their backs. To some, the streets are no place to call home, but to those who are homeless, it could be the only home they’ve ever known. There is a lack of social services and shelter to provide each with adequate services.

Their footsteps tell the story of their destitution—panhandling their way to survival and digging for their next meal. The lack of housing and social skills often places them in uncomfortable situations; desperately seeking recourse. Their appearance is of fatigue and sorrow, yet their cries often go unheard.

Homelessness can be difficult to understand from an outsider’s perspective. It’s a word that is often characterized by unfriendly descriptions such as “lazy,” “desperate” or “inadequate.” People suffering from the epidemic are of a subculture among their own. The lack of education about the homeless community can cause fear and prejudice from those who are not. Many authorities believe that alcohol and drug addiction make up a higher percentage than mental illness among homeless; however, it’s rather hard to determine which came first, the addiction or the homelessness.

A report conducted through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in 2003 estimated that 38% of homeless people had alcohol dependency and 26% abused drugs. The same report also stated that substance abuse was the largest cause of homelessness.

“We get really chronic addicts—ones that have been out on the river for 20 years. I mean, I’ve had people who have never lived indoors as an adult,” said Mark Teeley, Executive Director at Clean & Sober Homeless Recovery Communities, located in Sacramento, California.

Through the Clean & Sober program, homeless men and women are provided another chance through the program based on the 12-step model of recovery. The program's non-judgmental approach helps to encourage individuals to develop a better life. Furthermore, the program also offers residential recovery, which includes 10 townhouses and serves over 60 formerly homeless addicts and alcoholics, according to the program's brochure.

Another program that is aimed to assist homeless is Loaves & Fishes. According to Joan Burke, who is the Director of Advocacy at Sacramento Loaves & Fishes, their program provides day services and support to people who are experiencing homelessness. The program teaches them how to depend on each other for support. They are also provided meals that are served by volunteers. About 70% of people in the program are single men, and 30% are women. “If you have no money, we will take you. We will subsidize the whole thing. We believe that everybody deserves a chance,” said Burke.

Programs such as Loaves & Fishes and Clean & Sober do not receive government funding and are supported through private donations. Neither program provides family services; however, through a program called Mustard Seed, children ages 3-15 years old are provided a safe and positive learning environment at a free private school. Burke said that children of homeless people often lack traditional education because they are unable to provide essential documents such as immunizations; however, Mustard Seed provides thorough assistance.

In Sacramento, a 2013 report showed that 1,752 homeless were sheltered, and 786 were unsheltered (Sacramento County homeless death report: 2002-2013). The best way to describe what they go through is unfortunate, yet by some accounts, their situation was unforeseen. The circumstances that led them to become homeless often varies.

“I was raised up from 12 to 18 in the system. I got out, [but] the system doesn’t [teach] job skills or really how to live. I started drinking and fighting,” said Chris Vawter, who currently resides in housing provided through Clean & Sober. Vawter said that because of his life circumstances he found himself living on the street. “I lived on the river for 24 years,” he said. Before getting into the program, he had no clear direction or place to call home.

The transition from the street isn’t easy and the homeless struggle within their new home environment. “It’s an adjustment process,” said Teeley. When asked about the scariest part of living on the street, Vawter replied, “Probably for me, the people. [At night], I would hide myself in bushes because I always worried while asleep somebody was going to do something to me.”

Vawter has a positive outlook on his recovery. He said that he now has a sober sponsor, attends regular meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous and is looking forward to pursuing a career as a smog technician.

The Clean & Sober program has been supportive of their residents who want to further their education or strengthen their family relationships. Teeley said that the program doesn’t provide family housing; however, there are the reunification and mental health services. Residents can live in the housing for a year or can receive extended stay; however, it’s based on an individual basis. The rate of housing is $0 to $275.00 per month plus food expenses.

“If you’re homeless, you’re homeless. It doesn’t matter where you’re at,” said Teeley comparing Sacramento homelessness to San Francisco. Teeley believes that a significant difference is that Sacramento’s homeless is spread out and there are fewer services.

The downward spiral that drug and alcohol use can send people on is, without a doubt, devastating. Vawter said that his addiction caused things to get progressively worse. “Because of my alcoholism and violence, I went to prison!” By the age of 20, he had spent over two years in prison. Once he was released from prison, he continued the same patterns as before. “I started drinking again; I beat this guy up and robbed him while I was drunk.” While in St. Louis, Mo., he was introduced to crack cocaine. The next year would include him moving around from state-to-state.

Once Vawter arrived in Sacramento, he had no place to go, so he asked a California Highway Patrol officer where the homeless spent time. “I asked her where all the homeless people hung out because I was hungry, and she directed me to Loaves & Fishes. Then I became introduced to methamphetamines [living on the street],” he said.

In Sacramento, California methamphetamines are a primary drug of choice among addicts, according to a 2011 White House survey. In fact, arrests showed the highest percentage of meth positive cases increasing from 31% in 2000 to 43% in 2011.

In the U.S., the lack of adequate shelter often leaves homeless individuals at risk. Furthermore, drugs and alcohol are often a coping mechanism to numb the pain. Outreach programs offer support for people who are homeless, but there is a deficit due to the lack of funding. Burke said that more can be done to help the homeless. “We’re kind of an open door,” said Burke. Unfortunately, there continues to be a long waitlist for housing.

As winter approaches, there will be many individuals who will remain on the street without protective gear or shelter to keep warm. Burke said that once the program at Loaves & Fishes closes for the day, many homeless people are right back on the street living near the river or in an alley. 

Crystal U., who was homeless, said that through the support of family and the Clean & Sober program she has been able to turn her life around. Fittingly so, she now manages and coordinates TurnAround Coffee House, a non-profit coffee shop through Clean & Sober. Crystal said that she was homeless at different times in her life throughout childhood and adulthood.

“I stayed because I didn’t want to be homeless again,” Crystal states recalling an abusive relationship that contributed to her becoming homeless. “I was out there probably for about a year before I got into Clean & Sober,” she said.

Crystal went on to say that when you’re homeless it’s difficult not to drink or use drugs because of the vulnerability of the streets. “If it weren’t for Clean & Sober, I probably wouldn’t be alive,” she said. She agreed that the program has been supportive in providing her adequate resources and support. “I got this position, and it was like my whole life made sense,” she said about working at TurnAround.

Homeless or not, people can become dependent on a particular way of life. “I got addicted to the lifestyle, being homeless,” said Vawter. This time around, he is determined to continue seeking help from all of his resources. “[I’m] not doing things my way because my way always ends with me back out on the river getting loaded and living that miserable life,” Vawter said. He wants to be a positive example for others.

Whether the reason behind the epidemic of homelessness is job loss, lack of shelter, alcoholism or drugs, many people who are still living on the street may never obtain the proper care. Thus, the suffering is a universal problem. Vawter and Crystal both stated that they are where they are because of support and a lifelong commitment to recovery. Despite their unfortunate circumstances, they have proven that they are more than just a statistic, they’re survivors. 

Salatha Helton is a freelance writer from Oahu; however, she currently resides in Northern California. She manages Lodie's Blog and is the author of Diary of a Skinny Girl. She last wrote about pro-ana and porn addiction.

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Salatha Helton is a freelance writer from Oahu; however, she currently resides in Northern California. She is the author of Diary of a Skinny Girl. She last wrote about pro-ana and porn addiction. You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.