Addiction & Homelessness: My Experience Working In a Shelter

tornadoOur society often views individuals who are homeless as being deviant, which is often thought to be as bad, criminal, sick, or inferior. But really, deviance is just straying from the norm. And for some who are homeless, being in a state of intoxication can often be the norm for them.

Getting called a drunk, alcoholic, or addict are only some of the names and labels I continually hear individuals get called at an emergency homeless shelter I am employed at. Like mental illness, addiction has a stigma as well and it is common that those who live with a mental illness will live with an addiction in their life as well. Experiencing addiction with substances is truly scary because it is such an intricate, multi-faceted, compounded and complex issue.

Often we believe that the chain reaction and vicious model of the addiction cycle identified by Terry Gorski is what addiction looks like, and it does to an extent, because it does help us understand addiction. More realistically, addiction looks like multiple tornadoes chasing you down. And to be clear, the use of alcohol or drugs is not an innate characteristic, it is related to oppression, trauma, and mental health. Furthermore, for individuals who are identified as aboriginals, a history of colonization, inter-generational trauma and residential school also play a factor in choosing to use substances. I have been witness to broken bones, bloodied clothes, infections, stabbings, sexual assaults, physical violence, and death at the homeless shelter; all of which have their own cycles, models and theories. These are all merely just the minor factors that play a small hand in tyrannizing someone in the life of homelessness and poverty, not to mention larger factors such as our social determinants of health.

While addiction can be defined in a variety of ways, for me, someone living with addiction is someone who has and is experiencing a severe amount of mental, physical, emotional and spiritual pain. Resorting to alcohol or drugs is a coping skill because unfortunately, other coping skills were and have not developed. This is why harm reduction plays such an important role in helping introduce someone into recovery. Recovery does not have to mean abstaining from the use of substances either, it can be a means to help improve a person’s quality of life.

I hope that this has given you some perspective and insight into the realm of homelessness and addiction and more importantly that it becomes a continuing conversation that you share between family, friends, co-workers, or anyone that is willing to engage.

MichaelMarshall_smMichael Marshall
– Concurrent Disorder, 2012

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