Homelessness, Substance Use, Mental Illness: What We Can Do to Help

By Alexandra Lily Swanston

Many of us have an idea of who is homeless and why they become homeless. These ideas can come from a variety of places, including our own experiences, those of family or friends, or through the things we read or see on TV. These different sources of information shape our ideas about who we think a typical homeless person is, but in the end may or may not be accurate. The reality is that there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ homeless person and the population is incredibly diverse. No one is absolutely safe from experiencing homelessness. Very few people choose to be homeless and it can happen to anyone. Homelessness is not just a big city problem, as the causes of it can affect people living in the urban and rural areas too. Every community has homeless people, even if
you don’t see them on the street. Most people don’t actually live on the streets, but they may be living temporarily with friends or family, or staying in shelters.

Homelessness Mental HealthWhat is homelessness?

About 34 million people in the United States live in poverty. As a result, more than 10% of the US population struggles to afford necessities such as housing. Given the large number of people living in poverty, the risk of homelessness is high. The definition of those who are experiencing homelessness includes:

Who are the homeless?

California’s most frustrating issue is also it’s most shameful, the large and rising number of residents who lack a safe place to call home. In a state with vast amounts of wealth, more than 160,000 of its residents sleep in cars, shelters and on the street. The United Nations compared the tent encampments of San Francisco to the slums of Mexico City. Over 5,000 people live in the half square mile of Los Angeles’ Skid Row. And while the problems are most intense in California’s urban centers, homelessness is now a common fixture in many of the state’s suburbs and rural towns. While about 1 in 8 Americans live in California, more than 1 in 4 homeless Americans live here.

Roughly 30% of the states unhoused population is African American. There is common racial discrimination in rental housing, higher rates of poverty among black families, the highest incidence of rent burden and a high percentage in the states incarceration and child welfare systems all contribute. A person experiencing homelessness is about twice as likely to be male than female and significantly more likely to be LGBTQ+ than in the population at large. A growing proportion are seniors, with research indicating nearly half of seniors on the street fall into make up a share of the country’s homeless population. Roughly 11,000 veterans experience homelessness in California, about 8% of the state’s total homeless population. About 8,000 families and 12,000 children were homeless in California last year.

Substance use and mental illness among the homeless

Methamphetamine use is up across the West Coast, and is often to blame for some of the most visible episodes of homelessness seen on California streets. Unfortunately, physicians say meth addiction is difficult to treat. While methadone and suboxone is available to wean heroin addicts off of opioids, no such replacement medication exists for meth. Worse still, drugs can exacerbate existing mental illnesses. Addiction and psychological conditions are often intertwined and present a complex situation for outreach workers or law enforcement to confront. In particular, fentanyl overdoses are spiking and causing increasing concern as the fatality numbers keep increasing. The sales of meth, heroin and cocaine on Skid Row add up to a $200 million annual enterprise, fueling a massive black market. Overtime, this area has become the epicenter for Los Angeles’ addiction crisis as well as becoming the poster child for California’s struggle to crack down on the drug trade and improve the homeless populations quality of life and opportunities.

How can we help?

The world of the homeless may seem very far from yours, but in some ways, it is quite near. Struck by personal tragedies, the people in shelters and on the streets across America have lost their homes and been deserted by family and friends. What can you do to help them? Sometimes even the smallest actions can go a long way.

  1. Donate Food- It’s as simple as taking a few extra sandwiches when you go out. When you pass someone who asks for change, offer them something to eat. Or donate non-perishables to your local shelters and food drives.
  2. Donate Money- One of the most direct ways to aid the homeless is to give money. Donations to nonprofit organizations that serve the homeless go a long way.
  3. Give Recyclables- Collecting recyclable cans and bottles is often the only “job” available to the homeless. You can help by saving your recyclables and giving them to the homeless instead of taking them to a recycling center or leaving them out for collection.
  4. Donate Clothing- Next time you do your spring or fall cleaning, keep an eye out for those clothes that you no longer wear. Gather them together and donate them to organizations that provide housing for the homeless.
  5. Donate Toys- Children living in shelters have few possessions including toys. Homeless parents have more urgent demands on what little money they have, such as food and clothing. You can donate toys, books and games to family shelters.
  6. Volunteer at a shelter- Shelters thrive on the work of volunteers; from those who serve meals to others who counsel the homeless on where to get social services.
  7. Volunteer at a soup kitchen- Soup kitchens provide one of the basics of life, nourishing meals for the homeless. To volunteer your services, contact your local soup kitchen, mobile food program or shelter.


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