Helping the homeless become addicts?

Every day I work to support people who are homeless or have addictions. I sometimes hear this described as ‘helping people integrate back into mainstream (or ‘normal’) society.

At this point I am torn – enabling people to participate in families and stable work or friendship circles is an essential part of their recovery, but there’s large parts of ‘mainstream society’ that I don’t really like.

We live in a country saturated by rampant consumerism which tries to infiltrate every corner of our lives, yet is so pervasive that often we barely notice it. Advertising constantly creates desire for a product or experience that promises to, but never satisfies us.


People feel excluded from the mainstream when they don’t have money to spend – the constant advertising and diminishing of free indoor public space screams at us that we’re not worth anything if we can’t buy. Try spending too much time in a shopping mall if you’ve not got any money to spend.

We’ve been cutting costs in our personal budget recently and despite myself have felt excluded that I don’t have the choice to sit in a café in town with ‘everyone else’. Similarly, part of the reason some people blow their benefits cheque is that for one day a fortnight they can feel ‘normal’.

Ian’s story: Is this it?

After time rough sleeping, Ian was accepted at a hostel and started to tackle his heroin addiction. He made good progress and was successfully supported into his own accommodation. His support worker was delighted and pleased to see a ‘success story’. Three months later the Ian came back to visit and asks a question that I return to again and again in my work.

“Is this it?  All the work I did to fight addiction and now I stare at four walls of my flat. Is this what it was all for?”

The Big questions

When working in any field it’s often easy to lose sight of the big questions. It’s easy to get lost in the important day to day of supporting vulnerable and chaotic people. This is no abstract discussion, but a fundamental question for people working in homelessness and addictions. This is particularly true for a significant number of people who saw through the empty lies inherent in consumerism, but didn’t find satisfactory answers and escaped into addiction.

What are we selling to people? Why should people bother trying to escape addiction and live in our reality?

The question points back to us. Do our churches, charities and projects model something counter cultural that stands against the lie that we’ll be happier if we buy the next gadget, car or holiday? Are we building relationships and communities that help us to collectively break free of our society’s obsession with money and insidious status symbols?

We don’t want to spend our efforts simply to help people overcome one addiction and replace it with another. There’s enough consumer addicts in the world already.

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