The Homeless Alcoholic

The most troubling and most misunderstood of all homeless people are homeless alcoholics. So much so, that they should be considered a different type of social problem, beyond that of merely homeless.

Alcohol in any measure has the effect of reducing a person’s natural inhibitions. That is why the behavior of an alcoholic is often erratic and unpredictable. Whatever emotions a person is harboring will quickly come to the surface when drinking. Most homeless people deal with anger issues, and so it is not uncommon for the homeless alcoholic to become violent when drinking.

Given this behavior of homeless alcoholics, it is no wonder that few if any people ever attempt to get close enough to understand them. But, what contributes more to the misunderstanding is that alcoholic homeless people themselves are deceptive and dishonest about their condition. Certainly, everyone has secrets and complete honesty by anyone is hardly found, but with homeless alcoholics dishonesty and deception are taken to absurd levels.

With people unwilling to learn about homeless alcoholics and homeless alcoholics not wanting to be understood, it is no wonder very little progress has been made in dealing with, and ending, this type of homelessness.

I recall seeing a film in elementary school that discussed homeless people. This filmed labeled homeless alcoholics as “survivors,” but to me they did not appear to have survived anything, but were overcome by their circumstances, their lives were completely destroyed. I was too young to understand the many meanings that could be derived from that word. Now that I think about it, the film was using the label “survivor” to indicate that these people were surviving from one day to the next, and that there wasn’t much else to their existence other than surviving. When throwing around the word “survivor,” it is important to be clear which meaning of the word you are applying. I think you can rightly use the word in describing homeless alcoholics, but only in a narrow context.

They lost everything
Except for rare cases, the homeless alcoholic has lost everything he or she ever had. The job is usually the first to go, then family then house and every other possession. All of it has been squandered in pursuit of the next drink. For many homeless alcoholics, this kind of loss is more devastating than they can deal with, they commit suicide. Those who don’t could be labeled “survivors,” for that fact as well.

There is a significant change in the mind, and perhaps even in the soul, of a homeless alcoholic, when they have completely bottomed out and have lost everything. Instead of fighting against alcoholism, they turn and embrace it. They allow it to become the cornerstone of their existence. Alcoholism becomes their guiding force. Their entire life’s focus shifts from battling alcohol to battling every obstacle between themselves and alcohol.

Willing Sacrifice
Everything a homeless alcoholic does, and I mean literally everything, is a means towards the one goal of obtaining alcohol. When they wake up in the morning and get out of bed it’s done for the sole purpose of finding and drinking alcohol. If they stop first to eat breakfast it’s done so to have the energy necessary for going out and finding alcohol. When they stop and chat up another person, making friends with them, it’s done so only because he believes this person will help him in his quest for alcohol. If a person does not fit into the homeless alcoholics scheme of getting alcohol, the alcoholic will not bother with him. Because he has already sacrificed everything he’s ever cared about to alcohol, this homeless alcoholic has no qualms about sacrificing anything else, or anyone else, that comes his way.

With everything calculated towards the goal of more drink, the homeless alcoholic soon develops a shtick, a method of talking to people to help him achieve his goal. With time and practice this shtick is developed and refined to meet the different people and situations the homeless alcoholic will meet during the day. It is all geared toward either enticing or provoking people into being accomplices in his effort to attain alcohol.

Panhandling is the foundation of a homeless alcoholic’s career – obtaining money from anyone so to pay for alcohol. And it’s from this foundation that all other skills are developed. Panhandling is not limited to strangers on city streets. They will bum money from anyone if they can get away with it, friends, family, clergy, homeless outreach workers, cops, truly anyone. In a city like Nashville, that is both a college and tourist town, homeless alcoholics are exceptionally successful at panhandling. Yes, I understand that by posting this for the entire world to see, I may very well be encouraging other homeless alcoholics to come to Nashville. Well, I’m not going to let that deter me from telling the truth of the situation. Hopefully, this will instead provoke city leaders to take a more active roll in finding solutions to this problem. Panhandling can take on many forms, from the long drawn out story sob story, to the blunt “why lie, need beer.” Whatever tactic works best to achieve the goal, given the ever changing situation of the street, is what the homeless alcoholic will apply. The motivation to feed their addiction makes them very creative and adaptive.

Being Your Friend

…………………………..(to be continued)……….


About Kevin Barbieux

I have been diagnosed as being chronically homeless. I write about my experiences and opinions of being homeless


  1. God Bless you Bill. Your story brought tears to my eyes.


  2. I was walking my bike home after getting a flat tire yesterday when I happened to look over to the side of the road. I saw a man lying on the steep bank of a drainage ditch almost hidden by the trees. I stopped and got a little closer and could see that he was alive and asked him if he was okay and did he need any help. When we said yes I set my bike down and went over to help. I could tell from his slurred and slow speech that he had been drinking and from his appearance he looked to be homeless. He had fallen down the bank of this drainage ditch and was trying to get out but lacked the strength to do so. He was tangled in thorny vines which had cut him in several places. He was covered in mud, blood and feces and his pants were almost down to his ankles. It looked like he had been struggling there for some time. He was on his stomach so I held one of his hands and asked him to try and pull himself up. He tried but just did not have the strength. I asked him to roll over on his back and I dug my heels in and drug him up onto the bank. I asked him his name and told him mine. I told him that he was lucky that I had gotten a flat tire and was walking my bike or I would have never seen him. I left him there to sober up and waked my bike another two miles home. I couldn’t help but wonder how Cody had gotten into this situation in life and from how high had he fallen and what had he lost along the way. It was lunch time when I got home and I was going to warm up some chili I had made the day before when I realized that thinking of Cody I had lost my appetite. So I made lunch for Cody and drove over to where I had left him. He as lying on his side on the dirt, asleep, when I called to him. He woke up and I gave him the lunch that I had made. He shook my hand and said thank you. I wished him well and left him there wondering what would become of him.


  3. I'm working on a project in a wet hostel in London now. I don't think there is any other solution to the problem . In the hostel they are fed and cared for. Each person is allocated a keyworker and although many will not get over their alcoholism, some are supported to do so. What the hostel makes me aware of is that these people are you and me- they come from all walks of life and each has a terrible story to tell , sometimes one a life of tragedy others maybe one incident that has thrown them off the rails. We are all human beings – we all connected. It is our duty to make sure those who are in this awful situation are looked after with as much dignity as possible.


  4. You know, the saying “god helps those who helps themselves,” goes against everything Jesus taught.


  5. Anonymous

    There is no solution to this problem. I don't think putting these people in wet houses is a solution. In nature, the strong survive and so it will be in human nature. Sounds harsh, but God helps those who help themselves.


  6. It used to be that people in this condition could be committed to an institution. But our society now frowns on that practice and so it is now illegal to do that which may very well be the only hope for changing homeless alcoholics. Some do eventually get tired of that kind of life, but others don't and they end up drinking themselves to death. Our society has to change, and must put some real thought into how it deals with these kinds of people. But, politics usually gets in the way of that happening. And so now we are stuck without any good solutions. There are some places, rare though they are, called 'wet houses” were they are given a place to live off the streets and yet continue to drink. At least in a wet house a person is able to get off the streets, and for that, they are not bothering the general public nearly as much. But wet houses do nothing to actually cure the person of their alcoholism. I guess that's the best option we have, since having them committed to institutions is no longer an option.


  7. Anonymous

    how can one help an individual that they know like this?


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