Because it’s the holiday season, a lot of people are sharing online about giving. Recently on Facebook, one particular post kept showing up in my feed. In the photo, a woman is hugging a homeless person she had just bought a meal for. The lengthy post speaks of compassion and kindness, of caring for others, of treating homeless folks with humanity.
But the post ends with this: “Not all of them are homeless because of a drug addiction or because they are lazy.”
An estimated 554,000 people are currently homeless in the United States. Where I live in New York City, homelessness is at levels we have not seen since the 1930s, during the Great Depression. The primary cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing. But the rates of addiction disorders, mental illness and other significant health issues are far higher among homeless populations.
This probably doesn’t surprise you. It certainly doesn’t surprise me. As someone who struggled with heroin addiction for 15 years, as well as mental health issues, I can see the trajectory that leads to homelessness for so many folks struggling with these issues. I also worked with homeless youth as a case manager. In the population I worked with, more than 70% were struggling with an addiction disorder, mental health issues or both.
After seeing that Facebook post pop up over and over again, I thought back to a few weeks prior, on a brisk Sunday morning. I was out walking the dog with my husband and toddler in our Greenwich Village neighborhood. It was a quiet and beautiful morning, if a little chilly. A homeless couple walked past us. They were both thin and displayed many of the signs of drug use I know all too well.
As we made our way back up the block again, they were stationed in front of a market, asking for money. Another couple, walking too quickly, accidentally bumped into the man, spilling his takeout container of food to the ground. The woman yelled at them and they hurried away. I told my husband to go on home and that I was going to buy them something to eat, as I didn’t have any cash on hand. In the market with the woman, she was jumpy and indecisive about food. I knew she probably wouldn’t eat much. I remembered the feeling well.
The cashier kept making comments under her breath to me: “Don’t give her any money. These two are in here all the time. They’re just gonna use it for drugs.”
I didn’t say anything as the cashier rang up the donuts and coffee. I got $40 back with my ATM card.
The cashier handed me the cash and said, “You’re a fool. She sure played you.”
I smiled at the cashier and said, “I don’t care.”
I didn’t care how they spent the money. I wanted to give, and I wanted to do so without any conditions. Even drug users need money for basic needs like food and a place to sleep for the night. If they did spend the money on drugs, because that is what they needed for some semblance of comfort that day, that’s fine.
People don’t grow up with dreams of being homeless and addicted to drugs. I remember the days, weeks and years of desperately wanting to stop, at war with my brain and body. And I wasn’t homeless. I can only imagine how exponentially more difficult it is to stop when your future feels so very bleak.
For better or worse, alcohol or drugs may offer some small solace or escape, at least for a few hours. Of course, that is not a solution. Of course, that’s not what I wish for anyone. But I have so much empathy for what it must feel like.
As I thought about the Facebook post and the incident in my neighborhood, I realized how harmful the message is behind the comment sentiment, “Not all homeless people are drug addicts.”
If someone uses drugs, does that mean they don’t deserve our compassion? Much like the narratives of what makes a good “victim,” people are so quick to delineate the “good homeless” from the ones who deserve to be there. But no one deserves to be there. We all deserve shelter, food and compassion, without any conditions attached.
In the U.S., there are approximately 20 million people with a substance use disorder. With an estimated half-million people experiencing homelessness, many of whom have addiction issues, that means more than 19.5 million people struggling with substance use have homes. Yet when the person using drugs or drinking is homeless, we look down on them more, heaping extra stigma on a gravely marginalized group for suffering from mental health issues.
No one “lazies” their way into homelessness. Homelessness is a systemic problem created by a lack of affordable housing, a lack of access to health care, to drug treatment programs and mental health services. A person who appears “lazy” is likely struggling with things we have no knowledge of.
I didn’t end up homeless because of my addiction. Why? I am white, and even when I had blown through everything I had, I had access to care through my family. There were systems in place to help me, systems I had access to because of my financial and social privilege. We have to acknowledge the role these privileges play. Because no, not everyone has the same opportunities to recover from addiction, not everyone has the same access to health care or community support systems. Why are so many so quick to pile on the shame?
Drug addiction is a public health issue. It’s not a choice. It’s not a moral failing. People with addiction disorders are human beings struggling with a human condition.
They also deserve to eat, deserve comfort and care. We should be giving with an open heart, human to human, especially at this time of year, regardless of what someone is struggling with or how they might use the money. Because that is how we show compassion.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.