Antisocial behavior is common among populations of homeless people. These groups suffer from very high rates of drug addiction, alcoholism, mental health disorders, violent behavior, family breakdown, sex work, begging, crime and other behaviors that can fall under this heading.
It is a commonly held belief that many people are homeless because of antisocial behaviors. In particular, many people believe that homelessness is frequently the result of drug abuse, alcohol abuse or mental illness. However, a new study from Northumbria University in the United Kingdom suggests that many antisocial behaviors actually arise from homelessness rather than cause it.
For Many People, Homelessness Leads to Addiction
The researchers gathered data concerning the life histories, experiences and evidence of antisocial behavior of more than 80 homeless people in the city of Newcastle in the U.K. They discovered that many of those living homeless in Newcastle once enjoyed productive lives before a significant, unforeseen event led them to become homeless. Antisocial behaviors often followed homelessness as these individuals struggled with their new conditions and sought ways to cope.
Approximately half of the homeless people interviewed for this study had stable work and home lives prior to becoming homeless and no history of substance abuse or criminal activity. For these people, the path to homelessness was often triggered by a serious event, such as the death of a loved one or the breakdown of a relationship.
Drugs and alcohol became a coping mechanism for many of these people, and petty crime or begging became a way to survive cold and hunger. For some, crime was even a way to obtain shelter by getting arrested and imprisoned.
Homelessness as a Pattern of Exclusion
Antisocial behavior did precede homelessness for some of those interviewed in the study, and it was one of the primary causes of homelessness in many of these cases. However, homelessness for these people was often the culmination of a lifetime of exclusion from society, which was often triggered by a traumatic childhood event. Events such as parental addiction, child abuse or loss of parents can all lead people to feel separated from society and make it more likely that they will engage in antisocial behaviors that further exclude them from society.
Adele Irving, one of the primary researchers for the Northumbria study, believes that there needs to be more emphasis on rehabilitating the homeless and helping to reintegrate them with society. She believes that penalizing people for substance addiction, vagrancy, begging or other antisocial behaviors only reinforces their separation from society.
Solving Homelessness in Order to Treat Addiction
Understanding that homelessness often precedes antisocial behavior emphasizes the importance of helping people find housing and achieve job stability. It shows that treating addiction and punishing people for criminal behavior may not solve homelessness, but that resolving homelessness may be an important part of treating addiction and preventing criminality.
That is not to say that helping people find housing and employment will cause addiction or other antisocial behavior to disappear, but this research does suggest that homelessness is an important underlying cause of antisocial behavior, like addiction, that needs to be addressed before other forms of rehabilitation are likely to have a long-term effect. And it suggests that in many cases, simply helping people to recover from a substance addiction will not help them resolve their homelessness.