Substance use in emerging adulthood (18-25 years of age) is greater than other life stages, particularly for homeless young adults. Research suggests that homeless young adults use substances extensively, often to cope with traumatic experiences such as abuse and victimization while on the streets. Despite the high prevalence of substance abuse among this population, limited research has examined their perceptions and attitudes related to using substances. This study aims to understand the views of homeless emerging adults concerning their substance use and its affect on their lives.
As part of a larger mixed methods study utilizing semi-structured interviews and standardized instruments, 87 homeless emerging adults completed qualitative interviews. These participants, aged 18-23 years, were predominately male (60.9%), non-Hispanic white (67.8%) and averaged 21 years of age. Participants were recruited from among homeless young adults receiving services from a community drop-in center and were identified by case managers as drug/alcohol users. The semi-structured interviews explored participants' attitudes concerning alcohol/drug use, how substance use currently affected them and beliefs about its impact on their future. Taped interviews were transcribed, categories developed and narratives analyzed using content analytic procedures.
Perceptions of substance use. The majority of participants (57%) reported positive reactions to using substances and discussed how substances made them feel better, think clearer and cope with life struggles. Participants also reported negative perceptions (32%), including experiencing mental and/or physical health symptoms, struggling with addiction and regretting their actions while “high.”
Life without drugs. The majority of participants (55%) discussed how life would be better without drugs, including improved outcomes regarding family situations, education, employment and housing. However, nearly one quarter (22%) believed that life without drugs would be detrimental and reported using substances as a coping mechanism.
Effects of using substances. Positive reactions to coming down from a high were reported in less than half (46%) of participants, who noted it as a time to reflect on their life. The majority (48%) reported negative reactions such as “wanting more,” having withdrawal symptoms and feeling regret for continuing to abuse substances.
Life perspective and drug use. A greater number of participants (52%) felt that their drug use had a negative impact on their life, including feelings that their substance use did not allow them to be their true selves. However, a large proportion of participants (48%) also noted positive influences, including the belief that their substance use helped them “be open-minded,” “deal with stress” and was a “perk” of being homeless.
Conclusions and Implications:
Although society may regard substance use as a major hindrance to homeless young adult's successful transition off the street, these participants viewed alcohol/drug use as a valuable coping strategy and a common social activity. Despite the positive perceptions of using substances, participants admitted that living without drugs would improve family relationships, economics, and self-respect. Non-traditional and creative services that teach alternative methods to cope with the stressors of street life may be more effective at reducing substance use among this population than traditional substance abuse services.