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 Paul Scudo, first day off the streets from homelessness.

“How did this happen?  I came from a decent family that raised me well and taught me values.  I was educated and seemed to have the things in life that most people want.  How did I lose all of that?  I must be weak, or immoral or I make bad choices.  It is probably ‘their’ fault.  There is NO way I should be homeless…”

Sound familiar?  That was me.  For two years.  Walking the streets by day.  Hiding in the woods at night.  Embarrassed.  Humiliated.  Confused.  In denial.  It was inconceivable to me that a college educated business person with a great job and a beautiful house would find himself searching for change on the streets.  I was too proud to beg.  But I was not too proud to steal if I was hungry.  “I must lack willpower.  I must be bad.  Why do I make the wrong choices?  How did I get here?!”  I struggled with questions like those with less and less hope of ever changing my life.

Homelessness affects many people.  There are a variety of reasons why one might be living on the street.  Shuffling from shelter to shelter.  In and out of the hospital.  Couch surfing.  Living in their parent’s basements.  Hiding under a bridge.  For several of those, there are legitimate mental and physical health reasons; family and domestic violence reasons; and a few, truly even have ‘bad luck’.  But for a large portion of the homeless population, we find ourselves without a home as a consequence of the disease of addiction.  Caught in the horrible cycle of using drugs and alcohol, we lost our jobs, our money, our family support and wore out our welcome with anyone who might provide us with shelter.

Many of us are capable, intelligent human beings who refuse to see our addiction as the cause of our living situation.  The stigma that surrounds addiction, and the mental picture that the majority of society has of an alcoholic or a drug addict and what that person’s moral and constitutional make up must be, discourages most of us from facing the fact that we suffer from this disease.  The number one symptom of the disease, is that it tells me that I do not have a disease.  Most often, the number two symptom is ‘I don’t have a home’ – which is the result of the other symptoms – ‘Can’t keep a job’, ‘Have no money’, Have a criminal record’, and ‘Destroyed the trust of my loved ones’.

The homeless with this disease, through our interaction with family, medical or clinical episodes and homeless resource providers, are made aware that addiction is probably the reason for our problems.  And yet we still do not want to believe that, instead providing a litany of reasons why we have found ourselves in the position we are in.  Mental health reasons have become the most popular.  It is much more acceptable to have a mental health issue like depression than an addiction issue.  Even though addiction IS a mental and physical health issue.  The stigma is often too strong to overcome.  I want to be ‘normal’.  If I admit that I have a drug and alcohol problem, I am no longer ‘normal’.  I am bad.  And there’s no way I’m having any of that.

Until we change how we, as a society, view the disease of addiction, our homeless population will continue to grow.  Having an individual admit that they are powerless over drugs and alcohol and that their life has become unmanageable is the beginning of helping that person to resolve their living situation.  Compassionate acceptance of the individual’s problems, combined with clear direction on the solution, and a firm adherence to the personal responsibility required to keep the disease in remission, are imperative to helping a person from homelessness into self-sufficiency.  Enablement only delays the process.  An individual cannot begin to rebuild the facets of their life destroyed by addiction until a foundation in recovery is established.  Helping people to accept that addiction is a disease and homelessness as a symptom of that disease may be the start of reducing homelessness.  The focus on personal responsibility as the cornerstone of the assistance provided, may be the most successful method of helping those from being ‘housing challenged’ to return to a fulfilling life as a member of their families and community.

It has worked for me, and many others…

Paul L. Scudo is the Executive Director of Step Denver and is in recovery from the disease of addiction.