Numbers Tell the Tale

As an agency based in Orange County that has focused on sheltering homeless abused children and mothers for the past 38 years, we have a unique perspective that those who work on the frontlines view.  We are often able to see over-arching issues that are greater indicators of what lie ahead.  In the past seven years we have seen a dramatic change in the increased number of drug addicted parents seeking shelter for their families. Currently 90% of the calls we receive from Orange County-based mothers seeking shelter for themselves and their children are mothers who are or have recently been drug or alcohol addicted.  We have contacted other local shelters that report similar situations and we have visited homeless shelters in Orange County witnessing that the overwhelming majority of residents are addicts.

As our communities continue to see rising homelessness issues, we see correlating rises in drug abuse.  The 2020-2021 Orange County Community Indicators Report shows an 82 percent increase rate for opioid overdose or abuse in emergency departments from 2009 to 2018.  

Root Causes

Drug abuse is the single most defined cause of homelessness.  Job loss is another cause, but the loss of jobs is often the result of addiction issues.  Mental illness is often the result of long-term drug abuse.  Addiction and homelessness go hand-in-hand and government leaders must realize this in order to be in a homelessness prevention position rather than one that is reactive to its effects.

We cannot effectively reduce homelessness without dealing with root causes.  We will always be chasing its tail and losing more ground. 

Children of Addicts

It is important to usher in the New Face of Homelessness.  Children are the “silent sufferers” of the substance abuse crisis that has not gone away during the pandemic, but rather grown like a cancer.  Children are the innocent collateral damage of drug/alcohol abuse, and they suffer homelessness and other profound deficits that negatively impact every aspect of their lives and futures.  We are seeing behavioral, emotional, psychological, and academic problems that often lead to early substance abuse.  There is a new generation of children of addicts who are raising themselves and are destined for many problematic issues ahead if there is no intervention.

These are the faces that we do not readily see.  We do not see identifiable homeless children because they are often hidden by parents who do not want to lose them to social services if they admit to abusing drugs.  They are in shelters or motels, living in their cars, or couch-surfing whenever and wherever they can. The most vulnerable of the homeless population are children of addicts. They are the silent and hidden victims, whose parents are unable to properly care for them because of their drug or alcohol dependencies. This generation of children is fending for themselves.

Mothers with lifetime or current drug involvement and/or heavy drinking in the last year were more likely to use punitive forms of discipline and display less parental supervision, closeness, discussion, and positive involvement with their child. Compared to their peers, children of substance abusing parents show increased rates of anxiety, depression, oppositional behavior, conduct problems, and aggressive behavior as well as lower rates of self-esteem and social competence.

The 2020 Annual Report on the Conditions of Children in Orange County states that “there is a strong positive correlation between drug and alcohol-related emergency department visits for adults and self-harm related emergency department visits among youth.”

Changing the Narrative

Unfortunately, government and government leaders have a history of being reactive rather than proactive.  To their credit, some Orange County cities have attempted to step up with emergency shelter in answer to the nightmarish growing numbers of the homeless, but as soon as they go through arduous processes of creating emergency homeless shelters, the numbers of homeless people in their communities grow exponentially.

It is interesting that a coalition of southern Orange County cities have continued to fight homeless shelters proposed in their communities because they believe that northern and central OC cities have most of the homeless drug-addicted populations, yet the main findings of the Orange County Health Care Agency’s report “Addressing the Opioid Crisis in Orange County” show that OC’s southern and coastal regions have more opioid prescriptions and opioid-related emergency department visits and deaths than other geographic regions in the county. It also reports that the opioid death rate for Orange County is higher than the statewide rate.

It is time that we prioritize drug and mental health programs which are necessary for emergency homeless shelters to be truly effective.  Orange County Supervisors and City Councilmembers, corporations, and foundations must support programs that address addiction, detox, and recovery that include the impact to the family dynamic.  We should tackle the true monster – the drug and opioid epidemic that is the enemy of our lives and families. It IS possible to change the trajectory of the lives of homeless children and their families. 

Lorri Galloway is the founder and executive director of The Eli Home, Inc., shelters for abused children and their mothers.   Eli, founded in 1983, has served over 40,000 children and their families since inception and has received numerous local and national awards including President George Bush’s 338th Point of Light and President Bill Clinton’s Presidential Citation.  She is also the former Mayor Pro Tem and Councilmember of the City of Anaheim (2004-2012).

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