“Does the crackhead become homeless, or does the homeless person become a crackhead?” This question was posed on the website Quora, where I am an infrequent volunteer contributor.

I took the question to be indicative of a certain social perception; i.e., that the usage of illicit substances is so widespread in the homeless populace that it is difficult to discern which came first: the drug addict or the homeless person. I have observed that both can happen, but that the latter occurs a lot more often than many people are inclined to believe.

This is because people have a way of wanting to find out why someone has become homeless. If they can pin homelessness on a secondary issue, unrelated to the defining factor (that a homeless person lacks a roof over their head) then they can effectively deflect attention away from concern over homelessness by replacing it with concern over that secondary issue.
But that issue, be it drug addiction or what-have-you, is only secondary. The primary issue is homelessness— and people don’t want to look at it. So they look at the “why” instead.

This is because it is easier for most people to live with the perception that a person became homeless because they were a “crackhead” (or drug addict, alcoholic, etc.), than it is with the sense that a homeless person may have become homeless for reasons that were completely beyond their control, and that cannot possibly be attributed to any kind of behavioral flaw or defect of that person’s character. The homeless person needs to somehow be blamed for having gotten themselves as far low as they’ve gotten themselves. This is so that the focus can become on what they ostensibly did wrong in order to become homeless, and not on the homelessness itself.

The primary issue is homelessness, and people don’t want to look at it. So they look at the ‘why’ instead.

The situation is further complicated by the widespread misconception that drug addiction and alcoholism are behavioral flaws, rather than as spiritual maladies that can be arrested through faith in God or a Higher Power. So it becomes easy to say: “Well, that guy became homeless because of his crack addiction.” A perception like that can easily soon morph into: “If he would just deal with his crack habit, he would be able to get out of homelessness.”

However, it is not true that if a person could deal with their “crack habit,” they could necessarily find a roof over their head. It may make it easier for them to find their way out of homelessness, but homelessness is a pretty deep hole, with many elements besides drug addiction obscuring the way out of it.

If, however, a person didn’t start using street drugs until years after the overall conditions of homelessness began to gnaw away at their better judgment, that person is less likely to be believed. This is because people don’t like the idea that homelessness might have resulted from anything other than a supposed “behavioral flaw or character defect.” If it was revealed that homelessness were the result of situations entirely beyond the individual’s control—for example, a foreclosure, an illegal eviction, or a costly medical misdiagnosis—then one would be forced to absolve the homeless person of any sense that they had “deserved” their homelessness, or that “bad choices” they had made were at its root.

In that case, one would be faced with the challenge of having to show compassion for the homeless person, rather than levying judgment upon them. Unfortunately, it is easier for most of us to judge others than to have compassion toward them.

For this reason, people are more likely to believe that the “crackhead became homeless” (as a result of their addiction) than that the “homeless person became a crackhead” (as a result of their homelessness). Therefore, there are more homeless people in the latter camp than many are willing to believe.

Andy Pope is a freelance writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of Eden in Babylon, a musical about youth homelessness in urban America.