The Homeless and Addiction Recovery

drinkEvery substance abuse counselor has probably at one time or another pointed to the “skid row bum” and said, “You don’t have to be like him to be an addict or alcoholic! ” While this type of person may represent only 5% of all addicts, Christians who are in recovery have a lot more in common with him than they may think! A drive through the streets of any major city reminds us that the “skid row bum” has not disappeared. Alarmingly, he has been joined by hundreds of thousands of people now called “the homeless. ”

Who are they? 18-35 year old men, women who are 16-30 years of age, and single parents with children now represent the bulk of the homeless population. Most are minorities and local people, not transients, who have been homeless for one year or less. On today’s “skid row” we find people who are dependent on a variety of drugs, emotionally dysfunctional, mentally ill, and medically at-risk, especially for HIV/AIDS. A high percentage of them have been sexually and physically abused.

Besides not having a home to call their own, most of the 500,000 to 3 million people identified as homeless have something else in common – addiction and mental illness. According to one study, up to two-thirds of homeless adults suffer from alcoholism and at least half suffer from drug disorders. (1) In their book, A Nation In Denial, Alice Baum and Donald Burnes shatter many of the myths surrounding the root causes of homelessness, which have little to do with the economy, governmental social policies, lack of affordable housing, and so forth. According to their research at least 65-85% of all homeless adults suffer from chronic alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, or some combination of the three, often complicated by serious medical problems. At least 1/3 of the homeless suffer from severe and persistent chronic psychiatric disorders. Forty to fifty percent of these individuals are “dually diagnosed” – suffering from addiction to alcohol and/or drugs, as well. (2)

Ultimately, the condition labeled “homelessness” is best described as a state of “disaffiliation” or complete alienation from meaningful human relationships and the social support systems most people have working for them. Most homeless people are either addicts themselves, or are the products of dysfunctional families and broken homes that were significantly impacted by addiction. These are root problems and, unless they are adequately addressed, any other help we provide will not be effective.

While millions of dollars may be spent on education, housing, and employment for the homeless, these efforts do little to improve their lots if they are unable to stay sober by working through the very same recovery issues that many of us are dealing with in our own lives. Sadly enough, while these problems are on the rise, the resources that are available are usually priced beyond what those who need help the most can afford! Between 1978 and 1984 there was a 17% decrease in treatment beds for the indigent (those without insurance or funds to pay for care). According to recent congressional figures, only 12. 5% of the nation’s 6.5 million drug users have access to publicly funded treatment. (3)

Christian Recovery & Homelessness

Is it possible that what we’ve called the “Christian Recovery Movement” could be helpful in solving this problem? Recovery in the Christian community is still largely a phenomenon of the middle class. Most Christian support groups meet in predominantly white suburban churches, usually outside of the reach of inner city people who could greatly benefit from them. Additionally, almost all of the Christian self-help literature is written with a cultural and educational bias aimed at this social strata. There are, however, some encouraging signs.

Rethinking Rescue Missions

For many people, the stereotype of the “rescue mission” or “gospel mission” is that it is a place for middle-aged alcoholics gathered for a sermon, bowl of soup, and a semi-clean place to “crash” for the night. To the contrary, the types of people who now look to inner city missions for help have changed dramatically. They are younger men and women, and entire families, with deeper problems in their lives than ever before. Many rescue missions are responding by developing some very progressive and effective programs.

Comprehensive recovery-oriented programs, using the   Twelve Steps   and other   treatment strategies   are now operating to help these homeless men and   women   lead healthy, stable lives. Just how effective “Christian recovery” can be is powerfully illustrated in an SRI Gallup study of recovery from homelessness conducted for a rescue mission in Knoxville, TN. This study, conducted by a secular research organization, had no thought of “Christian recovery” principles factored into it. They identified six critical “life themes” that were strongly present in the lives of people who were able to recover from homelessness. (4) Interestingly enough, these “life themes” clearly reverberate through the Twelve Steps. The following are listed according to their degree of importance:

Spirituality – as a source of personal strength and as the basis for rebuilding relationships with other people.

Self-Insight – by overcoming denial, acceptance leads to a new and accurate knowledge of oneself.

Security – feeling safe both physically and emotionally

Self-Awareness – being in touch with one’s own emotions

People Support – having others who care enough to be truly involved with one’s life (the total opposite of “disaffiliation”)

Suppression – being reconciled with one’s past and able reject negative thoughts, worries, and a poor self-concept

The movement to bring Christian recovery to the homeless is still very much in its infancy. Countless gratifying “12th Step” opportunities exist at inner city missions for Christians in recovery who are willing to transcend their cultural ” comfort zones.” Rescue missions throughout the nation are in desperate need of staff members and volunteers who understand recovery and can share it with others. If you would like to become involved, contact the AGRM for more information.


“Mental Illness and Substance Abuse in the Contemporary Homeless Population,” Paper Submitted at the Professional Symposium, Recent Findings and New Approaches to the Treatment of Mental Illness and Substance Abuse, Pamela  J. Fischer &a mp; William. Breakley, Tulsa, OK 1988

A Nation In Denial, Alice Baum & Donald Burnes. Westview Press, Boulder, CO 1993  Baum & Burnes

“Rescue Ministries of Knoxville, Tennessee Recovery Study, Summary of Research,” SRI Gallup, Lincoln, Nebraska, July 1992

This article appeared in the Summer 1994 edition of STEPS magazine, journal of the National Association for Christian Recovery.        © NACR, 1994, all rights reserved

Romantic Relationships in Early Recovery

Why do you say addicts should avoid new relationships with members of the opposite sex in the first year of recovery?

A. Avoid losing the focus on personal issues – For addicts, real lasting change occurs only after a long and often painful process of self discovery.   This involves understanding their own addictive behaviors, repressed emotions, and destructive thought patterns.   However, their denial uses the feelings and behaviors of others to avoid facing their own pain and dishonesty and from assuming responsibility for their controlling and shame-producing actions.   Introducing a romantic relationship, with an intense focus on the other person, too early in recovery inevitably “short-circuits” the important process of reconnecting with self and learning to become responsible for one’s own feelings and behavior.

B. Avoid the illusions and dishonesty of infatuation – The beginning phase of recovery is always a very emotional and painful time.   Still, all this pain can be an important motivator for recovery, providing great incentive to take the difficult steps necessary for real change to occur.   However, “falling in love” (and taking the focus off self) can easily create a false sense of well-being.   In the “scary,” unfamiliar, and often painful time of early recovery, becoming “special” to a person of the opposite sex is a tremendous ego booster. For addicts, this can create the illusion of being much farther long in the process of recovery than they really are.   Additionally, the commitment to “rigorous honesty” is usually forsaken as they strive to make the best possible impression to win the affections of the other person.

C. Avoid relapse from the stress of codependency – One definition of codependency is simply using other people to create good feelings within ourselves.   People in early recovery can easily transfer their dependency on alcohol and drugs to dependency on another person.   Until they understand the issues related to their own codependency, they are certain to fall right into old dishonest and unhealthy ways of relating.   By itself, the stress of early recovery often results in relapse.   Using inadequate and unhealthy relationship skills to deal with a person of the opposite sex is certain to create frustration and even more stress.   The likelihood of using drugs and alcohol is sure to increase because this is the way the addict has always attempted to manage difficult emotions.

D. Avoid the sex trap – Addicts in early recovery are especially vulnerable to sexual temptation.   If they get into a romantic relationship too early, they are virtually guaranteed to fail in this area.   They become involved in sexual activity because they simply do not know how to relate in a truly intimate way with the opposite sex and suffer from a serious lack of self control.   Additionally, to most addicts, sex is just like another “drug.”   The altered state of consciousness it creates can give hurting people a false sense of well-being and ease feelings of pain and insecurity.   Failure in this area can be extremely devastating to a new Christian, causing a tremendous sense of defeat and discouragement.   And, if they do not repent of sexual failure, the result is a serious state of dishonesty that totally derails the recovery process.

E. Avoid “enablers” and “fixers” – Those who are romantically attracted to individuals whom they know are in recovery programs usually have serious problems with codependency in their own lives.   People who are “enablers” and “fixers” are actually attracted to troubled people of the opposite sex.   Additionally, since these individuals are in denial about their own need for recovery, they usually put pressure on addicts to leave programs prematurely, convincing them that they are not “that bad” or that all they need is a good partner to get better.”

  F. Avoid cutting off relationships with others in recovery – Because addicts have used people to create good feelings within themselves, all of their relationships, especially romantic ones, have been completely self-centered.   Therefore, one of the most important phases of early recovery is learning to relate to others of both sexes on an honest, non-romantic and intimate level.   This can be a tremendously healing experience.   However, becoming entangled in an “exclusive” relationship is certain to circumvent this process.   The result is missing out on the blessing of positive and meaningful relationships with other recovering people in mutual honesty and self-revelation.

G.   Avoid situations   where drugs and alcohol are found – One final thought to consider; sometimes as newly recovering people pursue romantic relationships they may end up in situations where alcohol and drugs are used.   Often the people they are attracted to are substance abusers themselves.   It is not uncommon for men and women who have just begun the recovery process to forsake their commitment to abstinence to please – and even to get closer to – people to whom they are attracted.   When this happens, they are sure to find themselves back on the road to destruction.

Moving from Client to Staff Member

CreativeMinds2012Recovery programs hire many program graduates and others who have overcome addictions or have grown up in troubled families.   They can be excellent examples for mission clients and usually have special compassion and understanding for those who are still hurting.   On the other hand, some are hindered in their efforts to minister to others because of their own codependency.

Here are a few common symptoms experienced by these “wounded warriors”:

A. Inability to detach.   Staff members who lack personal acceptance and a good self concept tend to look to their clients for affirmation and a sense of worth.   They take their work home with them and tend to feel terribly guilty and personally responsible when a client leaves the mission and messes up his or her life.   

B. Caretaking & Enabling. They do not allow their clients to become responsible for their own actions and attitudes.   Instead, they cover up for them, make excuses, and blameshift.   By doing this, they become “enablers”, allowing people then to stay in their sins, addictions, and other problems.   

C. People pleasing.   Staff members who struggle with codependency tend to be very non-assertive.   Because they need the affirmation of others, even clients, they simply cannot say “no.”   Without a good a sense of personal boundaries, they sometimes don’t even understand when “no” is the most appropriate response.   

D. Control freaks.   Codependent Christian workers can be spiritually legalistic, controlling others by shaming and laying guilt trips on them.   Since they believe their personal worth is dependent upon their performance, they never feel what they do is good enough.   This perfectionism can cause them to be domineering, driving others with their own unrealistic expectations.   

E. Out of touch with their own emotions.   For the sake of their own sanity and survival, people in dysfunctional families shut down emotionally.   They are not allowed to feel and learn to view their feelings as useless, worthless, and unimportant.   Since they aren’t in touch with their own feelings, they cannot truly empathize with the feelings of others either.   

D, Dishonesty.   In addiction, lying is a way of life – looking good on the outside no matter how things are in the inside.   It’s the same for people in troubled families.   Their   fear of being rejected for their neediness causes them to become liars and fakes and phonies, and unreal people.   

E. Lack of intimate friendships.   One of the deepest wounds of toxic shame (inner self-rejection) is the inability to develop intimate relationships.   People who are shame based feel disconnected from all of humanity.   They might have a lot of acquaintances, but few close friends.   No one shares their pain, not even spouses.   

F. Justifying, rationalizing   & “spiritualizing” their own pain & unhealthy behavior. A lack of serenity is the tip-off that one’s life is not what God wants it to be.   Yet, too many people who are stuck in this mode of feeling bad all the time, either do not recognize their need for help or refuse to do anything about it.   Instead of taking steps to change, codependent Christian workers often blame others and make excuses, even with spiritual overtures.     “

G. Burn-out” & Physical Problems   With all these unresolved issues in their lives, people with problems tend to be very exhausted and tired.   I believe codependency is a very common cause of ministry burn-out.   It can be manifested in frequent absenteeism and health problems.   

The Steps Out of Codependency

1.           “It’s OK” – Help them to understand codependency and recognize that they are not alone. Others have experienced similar struggles.   Remind them that they will be supported in their efforts to get help.

2. Honesty – Help them to stop “blame-shifting” and accept responsibility for their own issues by taking the steps they need to take in order to overcome these difficulties.

3. Education – They need to read some books on the topics of shame, codependency, and adult children of alcoholics, etc..

4. Consider Professional Counseling – The best approach is to ask around to find a counselor has been of real help to others.

5. Become Involved in Support Groups – Much insight and encouragement can be gained by spending time in groups where people who struggle with similar issues share their experience, strength, and hope.   
Some resources worth getting:

Tired of Trying to Measure Up by Jeff VanVonderan

Released from Shame by Dr. Sandra Wilson     October 1997