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Is Addiction Driving the Homeless Epidemic in San Diego?

Is Addiction Driving the Homeless Epidemic in San Diego

Homelessness is a heartbreaking epidemic in San Diego, and there aren’t many glimmers of hope in tackling the problem. As San Diego County and California state officials continue to ratchet out ideas for solutions, the rate of homelessness continues to skyrocket, with this past year seeing a 22% hike in unsheltered individuals from the previous census results.

While more shelters, beds, housing developments, and food reserves continue to expand to accommodate this demographic, the number of unsheltered individuals in San Diego remains on the rise. Consequently, activists and governmental officials continue to explore viable solutions to this alarming situation by scrutinizing the reasons for homelessness. A common question that comes up in these brainstorming sessions remains, “Is addiction driving the homeless epidemic in San Diego?” The answer might surprise you.

More to the Homelessness Puzzle Than One Piece

As with most complex difficulties, more than one factor sits at the root of the problem. This is the case with the staggering number of unsheltered individuals in San Diego County. The reality is that there are many factors – not just addiction – that contribute to the 10,000+ homeless individuals in San Diego, and here are a few conditions that legislature and special interest groups have discovered when investigating this dire situation:

Lack of Income

It’s a common misconception that addiction is the top driving factor of the San Diego homelessness travesty – but a comprehensive survey revealed that poverty is the primary culprit. This report showed that six months prior to taking to the streets, the average income of now-homeless individuals was $960 per month. Considering the average rent cost in San Diego County is $2880, it’s clear that individuals and families is San Diego struggle desperately to make ends meet.

But there’s more to it than that. It’s important to remember that poverty is also a multifaceted problem. The high cost of housing combined with inadequate employment opportunities coupled with the exorbitant cost of living in San Diego all have an impact on poverty levels in the county. The loss of a job, inability to find gainful employment, or inadequate compensation all contribute to a downhill snowball that appears to be a glaring factor of homelessness in the county.

Substance Use Disorders

While lack of income remains at the core of homelessness, addiction is definitely a heavy contributor to the crisis. In many instances, individuals who are swallowed up by the powerful pull of addiction find themselves in the midst of hopelessness and homelessness.

The money, resources, and effort required to feed an addiction can often lead to the complete depletion of assets that would normally go toward obtaining or maintaining adequate shelter. In many cases, individuals who receive treatment for drug abuse can turn their circumstances around for the better; but for many homeless the problem continues to take a downward spiral.

But drug and alcohol abuse isn’t the single-most offender to the homeless epidemic in San Diego. In many instances, a myriad of conflicts and challenges have been brewing for many individuals before they transition into the drastic circumstances of finding themselves unsheltered. And then, once a person is in this perilous situation, they might find themselves so overwrought with difficulties, that getting stabilized becomes incredibly overwhelming. Herein lies the “chicken or the egg” problem when pinning homelessness on addiction.

Mental Instability

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, roughly 40% of homeless individuals in San Diego struggle with some type of mental illness. However, less than half of these people receive mental health treatment.

One reason for this is that 12% of the homeless population does not have health insurance coverage and therefore cannot afford treatment. And those that do have health insurance coverage might not seek mental health treatment for various reasons.

Veterans, for instance, who comprise 9% of the homeless population, often feel resistance to seeking treatment. From distrusting the medical industry to experiencing stigma when inquiring about treatment, there are a myriad of reasons unsheltered individuals might forgo treatment.


As we continue to peel back the layers of homelessness in San Diego, we see the reasons for it are rather amorphous, and you can’t point a finger at one single factor. In reality because there are many moving parts to the epidemic – some of which are still not entirely clear. In short, there is no one set answer or equation that adds up the human condition so succinctly that it defines the reasons behind homelessness.

Yes, addiction is certainly a factor in the homelessness epidemic in San Diego – but it’s crucial to take a big-picture perspective on the situation. Ultimately, it is a combination of many different elements to consider when addressing this tragic situation.

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