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Stamping it out: New programs helping the homeless beat substance abuse

By Megan Noack

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, May 8 2013 5:52 p.m. MDT

According to the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients, more than 80 percent of homeless people have experienced drug and/or alcohol problems throughout their lives. At the same time, national homelessness has increased in part because of the rise of home foreclosure, NSHAPC reported. This puts stress on shelters that cannot accommodate the need.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Dennis Bailey stood outside Salt Lake’s Road Home shelter with a pair of brown sunglasses concealing his steady eyes. Amid the surrounding voices and city noise, a sort of solemnity emanated from Bailey. He stared at the sun-drenched mountains, and a look of concern crossed his dark face. Bailey contemplated if he would make it his last day on earth.

“Sometimes, you just wanna take that one hit that ends the whole thing,” he said.

Bailey and dozens of other homeless people crowded the sidewalk outside the shelter, talking with each other and smoking cigarettes. Bailey was quiet at first, but suddenly opened up and began to tell his story in a slow, almost calming voice.

“I went to the other side of town, across the railroad tracks. I was doing good, had great friends, went water skiing, camping, everything, loved life,” he said. “Then I went across the tracks and started getting high. Then I went out to prison.”

Bailey, 53, moved to Salt Lake City from Arkansas when he was 8 years old. Years later, after stepping into drugs, Bailey dropped his enrollment at Salt Lake Community College and joined the Navy. But his drug dependence left him sitting in jail with a bad conduct report and subsequent dismissal from his service. Bailey’s mother was the only one who reached out to him once he was released from prison. But when he overstayed his welcome, she also kicked him out. Bailey ended up on the streets, depressed, hungry, wondering if the homeless lifestyle was any sort of life at all.

With just the clothes on his back and with dreams left unfulfilled, Bailey looked up at the blue evening sky, and sighed. Would he hang himself that night as he had attempted twice before while in prison?

“Just tired, tired of this life. I figure there’s gotta be something better on the other side,” he said. “I think right now I’m on the stairway to heaven.”

According to the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients, more than 80 percent of homeless people have experienced drug and/or alcohol problems throughout their lives. At the same time, national homelessness has increased in part because of the rise of home foreclosure, NSHAPC reported. This puts stress on shelters that cannot accommodate the need.

“I only have a finite amount of beds and spaces. The demand always stays high,” said Les Doyle, director at the Tacoma, Wash., Rescue Mission.

Drug use and homelessness

But when looking at root causes, two questions must be asked: Does the homeless lifestyle lead to drug and alcohol use? Or, does drug and alcohol use lead to homelessness?

“It works both ways, from what we’ve seen here,” said Patty Turnberg, executive director of Immanuel Community Services in Seattle. “But typically, the drug abuse will start and then you end up homeless because all your money goes to support your habits.”

While drug involvement led Bailey to homelessness, others say it is not the cause. Josh, another homeless man in Salt Lake, grew up in Canada and began hitchhiking across the states soon after high school. He now sits outside the Road Home shelter in Salt Lake, smoking a cigarette with his girlfriend Jennifer while sipping gas station coffee.

“It’s not the drugs and alcohol. It’s the lack of hope, the lack of something to work towards. It’s the mindset, and the government can’t do nothing about that,” he said, his piercing blue eyes panning the street.

Other shelter directors said homelessness is the result of unemployment, mental illness, dysfunctional families, domestic abuse — just to name a few. Tammy Holder, executive director of the Beach House shelter in Toledo, Ohio, said there are many culprits.

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