Stop shaming homeless people

They still deserve kindness

People do not need to be sober in order to receive help from others.
Photo courtesy of CU Denver News

According to the 2019 Point in Time Survey, there are over 5,000 people experiencing homelessness in Denver alone. A similar survey conducted by the White House Council of Economic Advisers indicates that over half a million people nationwide are unhoused. Homelessness and poverty is nothing new, but collectively, the country has yet to solve the issue. Why?

Because a) capitalism, and b) the overwhelming emphasis on sobriety as a requirement for being valued as a human being.  

Substance misuse and addiction are common among unhoused people. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that 36% of unhoused people struggle with addiction. And so frequently, when people experiencing homelessness ask their housed neighbors for assistance, they are consistently met with this patronizing response: “Sorry, no. I know you’ll go spend it on drugs or alcohol.”  

So what? Don’t a lot of people spend their money on beer and now, since the legalization, of course, a joint or two? Does that really make someone less deserving of resources? Of shelter? Of food or water? Of safety? Apparently, in America, the answer is yes. Moreover, why is that response such an immediate one? Why is the United States so hell-bent on refusing to help others in need, especially if they’re unhoused?

Unhoused people are just as much a part of the community as those who have the privilege of living in cute little bungalows or upscale apartments. And they’re just as human too. The kind strangers who roam the Tivoli, or sit on 16th Street Mall, or who set up camp on the hell strips surrounding overpriced apartment buildings; those people, sober or not, are people.  

Most, if not all, halfway houses require sobriety, as do many other temporary living arrangements like homeless shelters. Sure, sober living facilities are great for some people. But because these are often the only options for people experiencing homelessness, many avoid them if they struggle with substance misuse. Having a home shouldn’t require sobriety, just like receiving basic human decency shouldn’t require sobriety.  

Think about it this way: drugs and alcohol are used as a means of relaxing, easing worries, and even numbing the chaos of the outside world. Being unable to eat, sleep, or find basic safety is probably one of the most stressful human experiences. So duh, drugs and alcohol help ease the pain of that trauma. But having a stable living environment, or stable food source, or basic safety, those dealing with substance misuse immediately have one less thing to worry about. Maybe they’ll still use, but at least they have some stability and respect, which is all a human can ask for.  

Ultimately, the issue boils down to America’s long-standing history of villainizing people who struggle with substance misuse. It’s an “us” versus “them” situation, like so many social issues are. But as members of the greater community, people who struggle with substance misuse, or mental illness as a whole, are just as deserving of respect as anyone else. The same goes for unhoused people. 

This is a selection from the Nov. 11 issue. To view the full issue, visit:

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