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Reducing homelessness could prevent thousands of opioid deaths

By Dennis Thompson, HealthDay News
Even a 10% decrease in homelessness could save more than 650 from death by opioid overdose, a new study shows. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Even a 10% decrease in homelessness could save more than 650 from death by opioid overdose, a new study shows. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

Reducing homelessness by 25% could save nearly 2,000 lives lost each year to opioid overdoses, a new study estimates.

It also could save 850 lives from alcohol poisoning and 540 from cocaine overdoses, researchers from the University of Georgia estimate.

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This is the first study to suggest that homelessness contributes to deaths from substance use, the researchers said.

"One of the frustrations for people who study and recommend policy changes is that homelessness and the opioid crisis are persistent," said researcher David Bradford, a professor with the University of Georgia's School of Public and International Affairs. "Our study shows that there is a causal effect. Homelessness is making the opioid crisis worse."

For the study, researchers analyzed federal data kept on homeless people between 2007 and 2017, comparing it with death certificates with drug overdose or alcohol poisoning as the cause of death.

Researchers found that even a small decrease in homelessness could save lives.

For example, even a 10% decrease in homelessness could save more than 650 from death by opioid overdose, their results show.

"That's a lot of lives," said researcher Felipe Lozano-Rojas, an assistant professor in the University of Georgia's School of Public and International Affairs. "Deaths from opioids used to be a rare event, but it has become increasingly prevalent."

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Evictions have skyrocketed in recent years, with the lifting of the eviction moratorium following the end of the pandemic, researchers said.

Nearly 200,000 more people were left homeless in 2023 than in 2017, the federal data show.

The findings were published online Monday in the journal Health Affairs.

"The increase in homelessness that we've seen since COVID-19 is probably a significant factor in the increase in opioid-related deaths we've seen since COVID started," Bradford said in a university news release. "If you want to make progress fighting the opioid epidemic, tackling homelessness is one route to do that."

Other studies suggest that dealing with a person's housing before addressing any addiction issues could best benefit America's response to the opioid epidemic, researchers said.

But banning evictions isn't the sole solution, since landlords need to get paid so they have an incentive to make housing available, researchers said.

Something as simple as preventing evictions from happening through small claims court can help keep people properly housed, researchers said. Another tack could involve prohibiting retaliation from landlords when tenants report housing law violations.

"It took us decades to get into this problem, and it will take decades to get out of it," Bradford said. "What I hope people can take away from studies like ours is that we need pragmatic policies that aren't puritanical or judgmental."

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"We need to invest in these people who need help," Bradford added. "If you give them a chance, they'll surprise you, and they'll do well."

More information

The National Health Care for the Homeless Council has more on the opioid epidemic and homelessness.

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