Sadly anti-social behaviours such as drug and alcohol abuse are often associated with homelessness. The question is what comes first? According to a series of studies from Northumbria becoming homelessness may lead to anti-social behaviours, mental health issues and substance abuse rather than the other way around.
Researchers Adele Irving and Dr Jamie Harding looked at the life histories and causes of homelessness of over 80 people in Newcastle, UK. They spoke to homeless people about their experiences and staff from local authorities and hostels and support services in the area about the management of homelessness.
They found evidence of anti-social behaviour on the part of homeless people, however the research indicated that these problems were often caused by homelessness itself. Roughly half of the homeless people interviewed had previously lived ‘normal’ lives, with high levels of educational achievement, positive family relationships, long periods of stable employment and no pattern of substance misuse or criminality.
“For these people, the pattern of their lives had been radically changed by a significant life event – such as bereavement, relationship breakdown or redundancy – which triggered addiction, followed by eviction or the repossession of a home,” said Ms Irving.
In these cases in particular, anti-social behaviour was often a consequence of being homeless, and not the cause. For example, some people reported turning to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism to numb the cold and get them through living on the streets or to cope with hostel environments. Others stole food and drink for survival. In other cases, homeless people reported committing crimes in order to avoid sleeping rough, with prison often seen as a short term housing solution.
“Crime and substance misuse were frequently responses to, rather than causes of, homelessness,” said Ms Irving.
However, for other homeless people interviewed, existing anti-social tendencies had led directly to them being on the streets, as they had been evicted from the parental or marital home, rented accommodation and hostels.
Sadly, for this group of homeless people, problems of anti-social behaviour could be traced back through a lifetime of exclusion, characterised by traumatic childhood experiences, including parental addiction, bereavement, going into local authority care, neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
According to Ms Irving, research indicated that punishing the homeless for their anti-social behaviour often only serves to further exclude them from society, and push them into committing more anti-social acts.