The invisibility issue: Homelessness | substance abuse and the homeless

As winter approaches, we’re shining a spotlight on homelessness and people who are working hard to support those experiencing homelessness.

Here we look at homelessness and how it relates to substance abuse.

Homelessness and Substance Abuse

A 2007 study by Johnson and Chamberlain looked at the issue of substance abuse among the homeless. While there is a common perception that substance use and homelessness are linked, there is considerable contention about the direction of the relationship. Some studies indicate that substance abuse is a risk factor for homelessness, while other studies suggest that homelessness ‘induces drug use’. This is commonly known as the debate about substance use as either a ‘cause’ or ‘consequence’ of homelessness.

Although the empirical link between substance use and homelessness is well established, reported rates of problematic drug use among the homeless vary, with estimates ranging from 25 to 70 per cent (Hirst 1989; Jordon 1995; Victorian Homelessness Strategy 2002). Estimates vary because of different sampling procedures as well as different definitions of problematic drug use and homelessness. Johnson and Chamberlain found that 43 per cent of their sample had substance use problems.

Alcohol abuse is a major issue affecting modern society. With grey areas between what is considered a “fun night out” and an actual binge drinking problem, it is important for all people to be aware of some of the issues surrounding alcohol and substance abuse, and know what to do about it before the situation escalates into one of social exclusion and / or homelessness. We asked a clinical psychologist who specialises in addiction to share some facts that may help with general understanding about unhealthy drinking habits.


  1. The recommended low risk drinking level is no more than four standard drinks in a day, to avoid short-term risks. These are things like getting into trouble with the police, being the victim or perpetrator of violence, or accidents.Standard drinks don’t necessarily equate to what we think about as ‘a drink’. All commercially produced alcohol in Australia is labelled with the percentage of alcohol and number of standard drinks. Four standard drinks is about 3 stubbies or 2 pints of beer, half a bottle of wine, or around 120mls of spirits (although obviously less for stronger spirits like OP rum).
  2. If you drink most days of the week it is recommended that you have no more than two drinks a day, and two days with no alcohol to reduce the risk of more long-term health problems like memory issues, problems thinking clearly, liver disease, and damage to all organs of the body, not to mention damage to relationships, and problems carrying out work/study.
  3. Believe it or not, the low risk drinking levels outlined above don’t just come from health professionals trying to spoil the party, they are based on years of research and experience working with the harmful effects of alcohol. The levels are also based on some interesting research from emergency departments, after realising people were much more likely to end up there if they had consumed more than four standard drinks.
  4. Alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous! That’s right, you’ve no doubt heard about the horrors of heroin withdrawal, well it turns out if you are a heavy, regular drinker, the harmful effects of suddenly stopping alcohol consumption may actually be worse. If you are unsure, it’s best to check with your GP, your local alcohol and drug service, or the Alcohol and Drug Information Service in your state (freecall 1800 177 833 in QLD).
  5. The government is losing money on alcohol, despite the taxes. The estimated costs to society in Australia attributed to alcohol in 2010 was in excess of $14 billion, whereas only $7 billion was collected in taxes in the same year.

So what do you do if you think you or a friend has a problem with alcohol?

The first important thing to do is to speak to someone who knows more about the problem. Your GP is a great first step and someone who can provide information on a range of treatment options, including counselling. You may also be able to obtain a rebate for counselling from Medicare if you go through your GP first.

Homelessness infographic - QLD_-_updated_Jan_2014

The Alcohol and Drug Information Service in your state (freecall 1800 177 833 in Queensland), can also provide information, counselling and advice by phone.



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