Homelessness and Addiction

Data from January 2020 showed that New Jersey had more than 9,650 homeless individuals. Of that amount, nearly 600 were veterans, more than 500 were young adults, and over 1,000 comprised family households. More than 1,700 were chronically homeless. There were over 82,000 addiction treatment facility admissions in New Jersey in 2020. According to admission reports, 9% of those individuals were homeless. Homelessness and addiction have a close connection. It is important to understand how addiction can lead to homelessness and how homelessness can lead to addiction.

Why Homelessness May Lead to Addiction

According to SAMHSA’s last published HRC Facts Sheet, more than 30% of all homeless adults who stayed in shelters had chronic substance use disorders. Veterans had significantly higher rates of developing addictions. Also, homeless veterans who had a traumatic brain injury were twice as likely to have a substance use problem. In many cases, there are two common reasons for homeless individuals developing substance use disorders.


There are many potential causes of stress that can lead to homelessness and eventually addiction as well. Some common sources may include:

  • Poverty
  • Unemployment
  • Disability
  • Legal trouble
  • Divorce
  • Tragedy

Poverty is a leading cause of homelessness, and about 10% of veterans who live in poverty become homeless. When the negative life effects of any of the above problems lead to homelessness, a person may turn to substances. People who experience extreme and continual stress often misuse addictive substances to try to escape emotional pain.

Mental Health Issues

Becoming homeless can also cause people to feel hopeless. Since the factors that often lead to homelessness include negative experiences, it is common for people to become depressed, develop anxiety, or experience another mood disorder. When people are homeless, they tend to have poorer physical health. Stress, poor living conditions, inadequate nutrition, and other issues can be contributing causes. Poor physical health can also lead to or exacerbate mental health problems. People who have mental health issues are also at a higher risk for developing substance use disorders.

Why Addiction May Lead To Homelessness

Just as experiencing homelessness can lead to addiction, an addiction can lead to homelessness. According to a report from SAMHSA, 6% of adults in a study became homeless because of addiction. However, numbers may be higher in certain locations around the country.

Many agencies and organizations that collect data do not always have consistent accounts for whether addiction or homelessness occurs first. According to a SAMHSA report, nearly 40% of homeless adults surveyed were dependent on alcohol. About 25% were dependent on drugs.

Homelessness can also worsen addiction problems. According to one survey, 30% of respondents said they consumed more drugs or alcohol after they became homeless.[10] About 70% reported using the same amount of drugs or alcohol. The following sections cover some of the top reasons why people who struggle with substance misuse become homeless.

Financial Troubles

When a person develops an addiction, maintaining a supply of the substance becomes a top priority. These are the main ways that people experience financial troubles because of substance misuse:

  • Spending more money on alcohol or drugs.
  • Lacking money to pay bills because of missing work.
  • Forgetting to pay bills or not caring about paying them.
  • Making poorer financial decisions because of chemical changes in the brain.

When financial problems become chronic for people with substance use disorders, they may lose their homes. Although some people may stay with friends or family for a while, they often wind up ruining personal relationships. They may also choose to be homeless if the people in their lives are intolerant of their substance use or lifestyle.

Legal Problems

According to SAMHSA, a sample of homeless adults who were arrested for criminal charges showed that 20% had a substance use disorder. Legal problems may come from a wide variety of sources. For example, a person who is addicted to drugs may neglect children and face legal consequences. Someone who buys illegal drugs and gets caught by law enforcement may face criminal drug charges.

Another common reason for people with substance use disorders to face legal problems is theft. Since addictive substances alter brain chemistry, they also affect judgment. People often behave in ways that they would not normally act, including stealing to obtain money for drugs or alcohol.

Relationship Troubles

Since drugs and alcohol can change the way people behave, they can negatively impact relationships with spouses, family members, and others. People who have substance use disorders often lie about their whereabouts, spending, and more. Divorce, breakups, and fights can cause relationships to crumble, which can lead to a person with an addiction moving out or becoming homeless.

Job Loss

In addition to causing poorer judgment, substances hurt the brain in ways that negatively affect behavior. These are some examples of reasons why people may lose their jobs because of addiction:

  • Poorer performance
  • Erratic behavior or outbursts
  • Missing work
  • Inconsistent quality
  • Lack of care for others

Losing a job because of addiction is a common reason for a person becoming homeless. Since the individual may not want to seek help, the thought of being homeless can sound better than treatment. Also, the person may have exhausted any chances of receiving help from friends or family members.

In addition to leading to homelessness, job loss, relationship troubles, and other problems, addiction can lead to mental health issues. In many cases, untreated mental health issues are the cause of a person seeking a substance or experiencing other problems that eventually lead to homelessness.

Dual Diagnosis: Understanding a Key Connection

Understanding the link between mental health, addiction and homelessness are important. Of the homeless individuals who suffer from mental health issues, one-half also have a substance use disorder. About 50% of all people who have a mental health issue will develop a substance use disorder. This includes homeless and non-homeless individuals. Young people have a higher risk of developing substance use disorders and mental health problems when they are homeless. Those risks are higher for homeless youth who live on the streets than they are for sheltered homeless youth.

Dual diagnosis treatment is a special type of addiction treatment that addresses unmet mental health needs and addiction. If a homeless person with a mental illness only receives addiction treatment, the individual is more likely to relapse and become homeless again. More facilities today offer mental health and addiction treatment together. Also, there are more transitional living options for homeless people after they leave addiction treatment facilities. One example is a sober living house, which is a structured environment in shared housing with others who are in recovery.

Finding Treatment for Addiction and Mental Health Needs

Without treatment, it is nearly impossible to overcome addiction. This is especially true for people with co-occurring mental health problems. Changes that occur in the brain’s prefrontal cortex and amygdala make it hard for people to stop using a substance. Responses in these areas related to stress and pleasure work together to compel a person to seek rewards and avoid painful emotional experiences. As people try to cope with the effects of homelessness and any factors that led to it, they are more likely to continue seeking substances without professional help.

Fortunately, there are several initiatives throughout the state of New Jersey that seek to help homeless individuals with substance use disorders. There are programs that assist with mental health care and dual diagnosis treatment. The state’s Department of Human Services also has resources available to help homeless individuals find sober living arrangements after they seek treatment. New Jersey has resources that are for veterans who experience poverty and are at risk of becoming homeless. Additionally, there are special programs for teens and young adults who experience homelessness and struggle with addiction.

Find Solutions for Homelessness and Addiction in New Jersey

Today, health insurance companies that offer marketplace plans must also provide coverage for mental health care and addiction treatment. Many people who have no income qualify for free health insurance that includes such coverage. If you or someone you know is homeless and struggling with addiction, there is help.

At North Jersey Recovery Center, our facility is dedicated to helping people overcome addiction. While teaching people effective strategies and helping them understand themselves better, we help them discover the keys to beating addiction. We have inpatient and outpatient treatment structures, and our therapy teams utilize a variety of proven approaches. Our facility offers dual diagnosis treatment as well.

North Jersey Recovery Center offers sober living, relapse prevention, and other programs. To learn more about homelessness and addiction or our addiction treatment programs in New Jersey, please contact us.

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Laura Riley

Medical Reviewer

Laura comes to NJRC with 23 years of vast clinical experience in hospital, residential, outpatient, and community outreach settings where she has worked, supervised clinical teams, and volunteered. She has provided substance abuse and mental health counseling, clinical coordination, and advocacy to individuals, families and groups, and specializes in co-occurring disorders for both adults and adolescents.