By Carlyn Zwarenstein for Filter Mag
“Six months ago Jonny Brown admits he was in a dark place. Addicted to drugs, he’d lost his house and was sleeping rough.”
It’s the lead to a million identically framed articles implying that drug addiction causes homelessness—and therefore, that avoiding drug use might prevent it.
The media trope both reflects and fuels a common belief. A survey of 25 American cities by the United States Conference of Mayors in 2008, the year of the last financial crash, found that 68 percent of responding officials considered “substance abuse” to be the main cause of homelessness among single adults and unaccompanied youth. And indeed, this is how some people who use drugs and are homeless see their own experience.
In March, one week before schools and non-essential businesses were shut in response to the pandemic and most of us went into near-lockdown, I spoke with Snickers, a 33-year-old Toronto woman, outside the tarp-covered tent in the backyard of Sanctuary, a local charitable organization, where she was living with her partner while trying to get into social housing. “I’ve been on the streets eight years, due to addictions,” she said. “My life went spiralling out of control and I lost myself.”
On the other hand, her original choice to leave home and her native Saskatchewan related to abuse she experienced that pre-dated her drug use. “Too much abuse going on,” she explained. “And it’s from people who were supposed to protect me, to love me, and they were doing me harm.”