You’re walking down the street, and you see a person with obvious signs of addiction and even more obvious signs of homelessness. In a brief moment, you decide: will you acknowledge or avoid the homeless addict?
It’s a dilemma many of us face often or at some point in our lives. We see a homeless person and either fear for our safety or fill with disdain. But as a stranger, how should we approach those who are in the throes of addiction and homelessness? Who gets to help them when it seems as though the people who are supposed to be in their lives have given up? What could possibly pull them out of the dark, merciless cycle of addiction that has become their life?
We spoke to a recovering addict who, just a few years earlier, has also found herself displaced in the midst of chasing “just one more dose” after another. She shares with us her thoughts on homelessness, addiction, and hope. She has chosen to remain anonymous for this in-person interview.
What would you say to people who believe the homeless chose their path?
"I don't think anyone wants to live out in the streets. There is not a single addict I have met who consciously made that choice. I've met doctors who’ve lost their practices, businessmen who lost everything. It's hardly ever a decision someone makes.
The majority of the homeless who have substance use issues that I encounter are not on the street because they picked that lifestyle. Most of them tried to get better—they went to rehab, they went on probation, they went through the system willingly. More than anything, they wanted to get better. But sometimes the world takes a sober addict by storm when they return—the responsibilities, the demands—and our government’s recovery system doesn't always adequately prepare recovering addicts for a new life.
A newly sober addict is expected to go to a 9-to-5 job, get home and watch Grey's Anatomy, but it is an incredibly hard transition from rehab to everyday life. For many, reality sets in awfully quickly, they relapse and dwindle back into addiction; Sometimes, before they get the chance to wake up, they’ve lost the roof over their heads, the lives they’ve built and the only respite from that reality is to jump back into addiction’s black hole—if they’re fortunate enough to survive."
How do you think we should approach a homeless addict?
"We have a misconception of these events and pre-assess a person before even talking to them. Far too often, we see people on the street, people who are addicts, and we pass them by. We don't make eye contact, we don't break bread, and we don't talk to them. We simply pretend that we don't see them. That’s what needs to change.
Right before my recovery journey began, I roamed the streets looking for a high. Someone I once met described that experience best when he said, “No one sees me. I blend in like concrete.” That stuck with me.
I wished someone would have talked to me about my day, or maybe brought me food. I wished someone had asked if I needed help, not necessarily because I expected it to be given. I just needed my beaten-down former self to know that someone cared.
We never know how far an act of compassion will go, but seeing kindness can bring light to a discouraged soul. In my experience, I learned that every person’s behavior towards a homeless addict can not only affect that person’s life but can also change others’ perception of addiction. We are all humans and we all need help sometimes. We have to treat each other like humans."
How has your homelessness and recovery changed you?
"I now volunteer for a homeless shelter where many homeless addicts may spend their last nights. They come from all walks of life. Mothers, fathers, and children. Doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. They all have a story, and no matter how they were pulled out of their former lives, they find their way to me.
Coming from a place of understanding, the first thing I do when they walk in is give them a hug. At that point, there’s no time for judgment. After all, I may be the last person they meet. It is important they understand and believe that there can be a different tomorrow. I tell them, “There is always hope unless you're dead.” And although freeing themselves from addiction will take work on their end, our kindness can make a world of a difference in their recovery outcomes."