The Numbers Don’t Lie: Drug Addiction is Not a Leading Cause of Homelessness

People surviving homelessness

Studies show that the general public shares a bond of commonality in the desire to end suffering. In fact, the overwhelming majority of people believe that homelessness is increasing, and they desperately wish to put an end to this devastating trend. On the other end of the spectrum, politicians, policymakers, and other people in power share the goal of hoping to give the people what they want. 

On the surface, it all looks so simple. The people want to end homelessness. In representing the people and relying on their votes, politicians seek to give Americans what they want. And yet, the homeless crisis continues to grow, proving once and for all that the problem is not identifying a solution to homelessness. Instead, the problem is in the approach to achieving such a goal.

There is a Major Disconnect Between What Statistics Say and What the Public Believes about Homelessness

Studies show that, for the most part, the public perceives drug addiction as playing a gravely inflated role in causing homelessness. According to the available research, the leading causes of homelessness are the lack of affordable housing and insufficient income. Drug addiction doesn’t even rank in the top four. Yet, when these statistics are revealed to the general public, rather than causing an uptick in support for affordable housing construction, what we see is emphatic disbelief in the numbers.

As it stands, when statistics oppose public perception, the public, in turn, opposes the statistics. 

One of the most cited reasons for doing so is the idea that these statistics are derived from small research groups, and they are therefore not reflective of the overall state of our nation. This is entirely untrue.

Studies that reveal the leading causes of homelessness are anything but small, and they are not designed to negate the current narrative.

Here’s a brief look at just how much research has gone into the research we’re reporting.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty Arrives at its Conclusions Based on Massive, Nationwide Surveys that Took Five Decades to Complete

In January 2015, The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty released a comprehensive guide to homeless data entitled “Homelessness in America: Overview of Data and Causes.”

To quote the paper directly, in the place where it lists insufficient income and lack of affordable housing as the leading causes of homelessness, it goes on to explain that:

“In 2012, 10.3 million renters (approximately one in four) had “extremely low incomes” (ELI) as classified by HUD. In that same year, there were only 5.8 million rental units affordable to the more than 10 million people identified as ELI.”

This quote indicates that the study consisted of millions of renters and millions of rental properties. Multiple sources are cited for which the information was derived. Some of the most notable of these include:

The 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, Part 1, consisted of data gathered by 414 distinct Continuums of Care organizations, representing service workers and non-profit providers in what they list as inclusive of “virtually the entire United States.”

Joint Center For Housing Studies Of Harvard University’s report entitled The State of the Nation’s Housing includes five full decades of housing research produced by renowned scholars and academics.

Even armed with the expansive nature of all of these combined studies, NIMBY naysayers might still cry foul. This is why we have presented the view from so many different angles.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 74% of Homeless People are Not Drug Addicts. Yet, this Information was Presented to the Public in a Very Misleading Way

In a post on policy, we presented the American public with the harsh truth that 74% of all homeless people are not drug addicts, a term used to describe someone addicted to illegal substances. This came as quite a shock to readers, who immediately questioned the authenticity of such statistics. So, where did these numbers come from, and why isn’t this common knowledge? 

The stats derive from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which collects data “from all facilities in the United States, both public and private, that provide substance abuse treatment.”

This past year, their stats include 70,000 respondents. The only exceptions are prisons and halfway houses, which could skew the numbers to some extent. But if readers look closer, they will find that housing trends and the causes of death for homeless community members support this data as being reasonably accurate. 

As for why this comes across as new information, most people have actually heard the stats in passing, but they were worded differently.

Think about it this way. Media representatives, reporters, influencers, and the like are all conveying this exact same information. However, rather than stating that 74% of homeless people are not drug addicts, they say 26% of homeless people are drug addicts. These articles then detail the prevalence of drug addiction, completely ignoring the other 76% of the homeless population.

By doing this, it now appears as if drug addiction is a much bigger threat to the homeless community than other problems like lack of affordable housing and insufficient income. 

Another form of media deception is tying drugs addiction to alcohol addiction while failing to point out the significant legal distinction between the two.

The general public is much more sympathetic toward alcoholism than drug addiction because alcohol, while also a drug, is a legal drug. A drug addict, on the other hand, is struggling with an addiction to an illegal drug.

On a subconscious level, this garners significantly less sympathy. It implies an element of criminality that feeds into the rise in the perception of homeless people as criminals, which has recently been exhibited. Even if we bring these two numbers together, we are still ignoring more than half the homeless population who are not suffering from addiction.

Death Rates by Overdoses Are Staunchly Contested

Housing advocate Aaron Carr pointed out that if homelessness was a drug issue, states with the highest overdose death rates should coincide with having the highest homelessness rates. Adversely, we find that states with the highest housing costs also exhibit the highest rates of homelessness, further supporting the stat that drug addiction is not the leading cause of homelessness and lack of affordable housing is. Again, many questioned the credibility of these statistics. 

So how are death rates by overdoses tallied? As you might have imagined, the overdose death rate of each state was determined by carefully examining the tragic 88,000 overdose deaths that took place across the country in 2020 and then comparing each of the 50 states against 21 metrics of analysis.

This was undoubtedly no basement study with a handful of participants. Instead, it was a massive, nationwide look at death by overdose and its role in modern society.

Another Important Factor: The Difference between Causation and Correlation

Even if the numbers were inaccurate, and drug addiction was running rampant as many perceive, this still doesn’t mean it is actually causing homelessness. There is a huge difference between something that is a cause and something that is a correlation.

To bring this to scale, let’s look at the whole of society. The National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics projects that if we include alcohol and tobacco with illegal drug use (as the media almost always does with the homeless population), we get a jaw-dropping 165 million American drug addicts. If drug addiction was a critical factor in causing homelessness, why don’t we have 165 million homeless people walking around with no place to go?

Multiple studies indicate that many people who lose their homes wind up addicted to drugs after they become homeless as a response to the horrifying trauma. 

Nobody Is Too Tall to Stand Corrected, But It Is Better To Stand With Those In Need

In the end, we know that approximately one-fourth of the homeless population needs drug addiction treatment and services. In contrast, 100% of the homeless population needs a home. Given this information, it’s pretty clear which solution we should prioritize.

Please contact your legislators and demand an equal right to housing for all.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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