Understanding Homelessness in L.A. County: Alcohol, Drugs, and Mental Health Disorders

Understanding Homelessness in L.A. County: Alcohol, Drugs, and Mental Health Disorders

The Annual Point in Time Homeless Count conducted by the L.A. Homeless Services Authority showed that there were almost 64,000 homeless people on the streets or in homeless shelters in L.A. County on one evening in January, 2020. Of the homeless, 3,098 were youth or young adults under the age of 24. Roughly 6% were veterans and 33%  were fleeing interpersonal violence. Of those counted, 9% were LGBTQ+ and 70% were either Latino or Black. New numbers are coming soon following the February 2022 Homeless Count.

But what is it that sends people to the streets? Job loss, housing un-affordability, domestic violence, illness, a history of criminality, poverty, and rejection by family are all contributing factors. So are behavioral health disorders.

Here in L.A. County, 27% of the homeless reported substance abuse and 25% had serious mental illness. The numbers may be even higher when we consider that many people are hesitant to reveal behavioral health disorders to strangers taking the count.

Obviously, life on the streets is traumatic. People experiencing homelessness witness daily crime, violence, harassment, and victimization. They experience cold, hungry nights and blazing summer days with no cover. There is a natural desire to dull the trauma and drugs and alcohol are one response. In this way, substance use can be the result of homelessness.

In other cases, addictive disorders have disrupted employment, housing security, and relationships with family and friends, resulting in homelessness. For many homeless people, substance use co-occurs with mental illness. People with untreated mental illnesses often use street drugs as an inappropriate form of self-medication which also makes those on medical regimens prone to lack of adherence.

The worst part is that homeless people with behavioral health issues experience even more obstacles to stability that make recovery extremely difficult. This segment of the homeless population often cycle between the streets, jails, and emergency rooms.

Next week, we look at how evidence-based behavioral healthcare can help stop the cycle of homelessness for many people.

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