Why Changing the Stigma Around Addiction Could Help the Homeless
In February, activist Elvis Summers watched a dozen of the tiny homes he built for Los Angeles’ homeless get carted away by city officials. Council members cited safety reasons, arguing that the miniature structures served as safe places for the homeless to abuse drugs and alcohol.
Summers, who used to live on the streets of L.A., told TakePart he often asks homeless people why they started using drugs or alcohol in the first place. “The most common reason that I hear is depression,” he said. But “some people do it to be warmer. To have more energy.”
Once they start down the path of using drugs and alcohol, said Summers, there aren’t many exit routes available. And the stigma of being both homeless and an addict often keeps people from asking for—or getting—help.
Ending the negative stereotyping of addicts is at the heart of the LIVES Challenge, a new campaign that wants to help the public see drug and alcohol abuse as a disease rather than something to be scoffed at.
“Instead of looking at a homeless heroin addict and thinking ‘disgusting,’ we want to cause compassion and turn an eye toward these communities,” Ashton Tupper, a spokesperson for Recovery Brands, the company running the challenge, told TakePart.
Recovery Brands, which connects people suffering from addiction to treatment and a support system, launched the LIVES Challenge in February. The challenge encourages the public to submit one- to three-minute-long videos that will inspire folks struggling with substance abuse to seek help. Two prizes of $5,000 each will be awarded to the individuals who create the clips that best shift the conversation about addiction, with the winners appearing on the Recovery Brands website and social media channels.
Only 11 percent of people who suffer from substance addiction get treatment, and among marginalized communities the barriers to getting that treatment are even higher. Substance abuse is the leading cause of death in the homeless community, and almost half of people living on the streets suffer from chronic substance addiction.
Although he has never been homeless, Jacob Alonzo, Recovery Brands’ outreach manager, understands the stigma associated with addiction. Alonzo experimented with alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine at a young age.
“Alcohol helped clear all of my clouded thoughts and numb my emotions and numb every other care that I had in the world,” Alonzo told TakePart. At age 20, although he had a three-month-old daughter, he overdosed on cocaine. Nothing mattered to him as much as drugs and alcohol, he said.
“That was a turning point for me,” Alonzo said. “I knew [addiction] was either going to kill me or help me [change] into another person and hop on another path.”
Alonzo quit cocaine altogether, and in the eight years since he has committed to helping others suffering from substance addiction get the help they need. He said he came from a very supportive and nurturing household but knows that is not always the case for addicts. In marginalized communities, studies show that difficult circumstances such as unemployment and mental health problems can often lead to addiction. With few resources available, such as shelter, access to treatment centers, or a supportive network, it is even more difficult for the homeless to break the cycle of addiction.
“There’s really not a whole lot of anything that’s successful for the homeless to get their addictions taken care of. Even when there is a program they can get to, to get clean and sober, as soon as they’re done they’re right back on the street where the drugs and dealers are,” Summers said.
When it comes down to it, said Alonzo, anyone can suffer from addiction.
“The thing about drugs and alcohol is, they work. People with a ton of money—or people with no money—can fall into the same issues,” he said.
But people with greater financial resources likely won’t experience the same type of stigmatization as the homeless residents of his tiny houses, Summers argued.
“You don’t see people picketing outside [homes in] suburbia saying, ‘[I] know you’re in there doing cocaine,’ ” he said.
Ultimately, said Tupper, that’s why seeing addiction as a disease and ensuring everyone—not just folks with privilege—has acces to treatment is so critical.
“The more the message gets out there, the more the conversation changes, the more we will see resources, time, and energy and effort” toward getting people help, Tupper said.