Cannabis Substance Abuse among Homeless and Runaway Youths – What Can You Do & How to Find Help

How Prevalent is the Homeless and Runaway Youths Challenge?

It’s no surprise that homelessness is a rampant and complex problem in America. You see it on the corner, under the freeway overpass, on the beaches, in the motels. Homelessness often lives on the edges of society, but it’s a problem that affects everyone.

On a given night, more than a half a million people in the United States lack stable shelter. Many of those people don’t know how they will get their next meal. They don’t know where they will sleep that night.

Homelessness doesn’t discriminate against whom it impacts. People from all walks of life are susceptible to the struggle. Consequently, research shows that nearly 160,000 of those individuals are under age 25, with the vast majority between ages 18-24.

However, studies on homelessness are hard to conduct; participants are challenging to retain. Moreover, it’s tricky to obtain accurate data on such a taboo and sensitive issue. Some experts suspect the homelessness figure among youth is much higher, suggesting that as many as 1 in 10 young adults experience some sort of homelessness in a given year. This research broadens the term of homelessness to include:

  • Couch surfing from home to home
  • Sleeping on the streets
  • Sleeping in cars
  • Living in shelters
  • Living in motels

With that in mind, homelessness isn’t the only sociopolitical issue youth face. The National Conference of State Legislature found that approximately 1 in 7 youth will run away from home at some point during adolescence. Many times, these runaways are abrupt and unplanned. They usually happen in response to a conflict within the family home. That said, running away leaves children and young adults vulnerable to both physical and emotional harm.

Three-quarters of the runaway youth are female, and up to 25% of them are pregnant. Nearly half of all homeless and runaway youth report histories of physical abuse. 75% of them have or are willing to drop out of high school or college.

Many factors contribute to youth homelessness, though much of it often stems from family conflict.

Other hardships can include
  1. Poverty or severe financial distress
  2. Domestic violence
  3. Serious trauma at any point in the individual’s life
  4. Lack of affordable housing
  5. Mental illness
  6. Physical disabilities
  7. Substance problems
  8. Involvement with child welfare and juvenile justice systems

Some populations face higher risks for homelessness. For example, youth who have less than a high school diploma or GED is 346% more likely to face homelessness than youth with higher education. LGBTQ youth are 120% more at risk; Hispanic, Black, or African-American youth are 83% more at risk, and non-white youth are 33% more at risk. One’s family structure also plays a role, with unmarried parenting youth 200% more likely to face homelessness.

Rates of homelessness vary state by state. Recent data from the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) shows that the west coast has the leading number of unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness. California currently takes the lead.

Expert Perspective from a Licensed Professional Counselor

Brittany McCarthy, M.A.

Ms. McCarthy treats substance abuse and mental health, working with marginalized populations, including children and families involved with the Department of Human Services Family Treatment Drug Court Program.

Brittany McCarthy, M.A.
Licensed Professional Counselor
When it comes to homeless youth and substance use/abuse, what is the first step that an individual, who what’s to help his/her community should do?

In order for an individual to be an effective advocate for young people struggling with homelessness and substance abuse, they must first educate themselves and address any preexisting basis they may hold. Individuals need to be aware of the variety of factors that can result in a young person ending up on the streets and struggling with addiction. Teenagers who have faced adversity growing up are typically easily able to detect any insincere motivations, which will result in them disengaging and dismissing potentially helpful services. Individuals wishing to help should also educate themselves on the outstanding needs in the community and any resources that are already accessible. Armed with this information they will better be able to direct struggling teens to the appropriate resources without unintentionally alienating them.

What are some of the most common barriers encountered in solving cannabis addiction with homeless youth?

There are a variety of barriers that might impact a homeless teens ability to successfully address and treat their substance use/abuse. Some of the most common barriers that exist for this population include: lack of easily accessible community resources, programs that have policies that are difficult for teens to understand and comply with, and a general distrust of services providers, programs, and the adults that run them. It is also important to remember that teenagers that are struggling with homelessness and addiction experience an impairment of decision-making, fear of disappointing individuals in their lives, and the guilt, shame, and stigma that is frequently associated with homelessness and substance abuse. Many teens in these situations struggle to break free of the shame that is associated with the cycle of addiction.

Many homeless youths feel overwhelmed by their harsh day-today- lives when trying to address substance addiction. What advice do you have for young adults who feel they have too much going on to seek treatment?

For teens struggling with substance abuse, they are often forced to make the choices based on survival needs vs. the desire for sobriety. Another barrier these teens may face is estrangement from family members and friends, without whom recovery can be extremely difficult. The best advice a homeless teen struggling with addiction is to utilize as many community resources as possible where available, these resources can help meet their basic needs, such as: safety, shelter, food, and community support. Having access to these resources will free up their time and energy to dedicate to obtaining and maintaining sobriety. Most communities have directories of these resources in a variety of locations including: Department of Human Services, police stations, public libraries, and other community resources such as food banks and shelters.

Why Runaway or Homeless Youth Turn to Drugs

Many runaway or homeless youth struggle with drug use before leaving home. In some cases, their habit provokes them to leave. Maybe they want to continue using drugs or alcohol without lying or sneaking around. Perhaps their caregivers kicked them out of the home or they served time in jail or the juvenile justice system. These individuals may travel around with various friends, buying and selling drugs, and vacating in different locations.

That said, many young people turn to drugs once away from their homes. Casual experimentation can escalate into more problematic use. Substances tend to be easily accessible in motels, shelters, or on the streets. This accessibility can normalize use. Even if the individual had some reservations, seeing others using substances may encourage them to participate.

Exploring the Comorbidity Between Mental Illness and Drug Use

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 Americans struggle with a mental illness like depression or anxiety. Mental illnesses exist on a spectrum, and many people abuse substances to alleviate distressing mental health symptoms. More mild conditions can be managed and treated without serious intervention. However, more severe conditions can dramatically impact one’s quality of life. When left untreated, they can lead to interpersonal problems, financial and legal issues, and physical health deterioration.

Additionally, according to NAMI, 9.2 million people experience a co-occurring substance use disorder and mental illness. There does appear to be a correlation between both conditions. Nearly 20% of people with mental illnesses also have a substance use disorder. This number does not account for all the millions of people who use substances problematically without fully meeting the criteria for a disorder.

The Peer Pressure Effect

Adolescents and young adults want to fit in with their peer groups. For people raised in abusive households, the desire to feel accepted is even more exacerbated. Often, youth form a new sense of family with their friends. Because they can’t rely on their own caregivers, they turn to peers for love, companionship, and mentoring.

Unfortunately, their peers don’t always have the best intentions or coping skills. We all know that peer pressure can strongly influence a youth’s decision-making abilities- both in positive and negative ways.

Peer Pressure Impact
  1. Experimentation with drugs or alcohol
  2. Risky behavior involving theft or other crime
  3. School or work engagement or lack thereof
  4. Dating, sex, and intimacy behaviors

Numbing Trauma Or Painful Feelings

People who are homeless are significantly more likely to have endured trauma– often in childhood. Furthermore, trauma is commonplace during homelessness; many people experience or witness attacks, assaults, or other life-threatening incidents.

Facing and dealing with trauma is challenging. The symptoms can feel worse before they feel better. Many times, people want to avoid looking at it altogether. Drugs help facilitate some of that distraction, as they release dopamine and serotonin, the neurotransmitters associated with pleasure, happiness, and relaxation.

Most of us like a distraction when life feels hard. Temporary distractions are normal and fairly harmless. But when life always feels hard, drugs and alcohol can become that much more alluring. Distraction becomes the only solution for coping with distress.

Homeless or runaway youth often lack access to mental health resources. Subsequently, they can’t talk it out with a therapist or receive psychiatric medication. As a result, they may not be equipped to cope with their trauma or painful feelings on their own. Unfortunately, this lack of resources may increase their likelihood of turning to drugs.

Youth and Cannabis Use

Substance use is a persistent, societal problem among American youth. The CDC reports that nearly ⅔ of all youth have tried alcohol by 12th grade. Likewise, about half of high school students indicate experimenting with marijuana.

One study examining youth ages 18-26 found that 32% of participants reported drinking alcohol daily. 61% reported daily drug use. In this study, marijuana and synthetic marijuana (K2, spice) were the most frequently used substance.

The U.S Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) reports that, after alcohol, cannabis is the most commonly used substance among adolescents, and the use has increased over the past decade. In 2017, one study found that 23% of 12th graders had reported using cannabis within the past month.

This problem is exacerbated in homeless populations. Research shows that up to 86% of homeless youth meet the criteria for a substance use disorder. Again, it’s challenging to obtain accurate data. Accurate data requires honest participation and appropriate sample groups. These aren’t always feasible when working with certain populations.

The Dangers of Cannabis Addiction In This High-Risk Population

People can become dependent on any mood-altering substance. Certain risk factors like a history of trauma, co-occurring mental illness, or family history of addiction can make someone more vulnerable. Cannabis use disorder consists of a problematic pattern of using cannabis over an extended amount of time

Cannabis Use Disorder (CUD) Symptoms
  • Using more cannabis than originally intended and in higher quantities
  • Experiencing the desire to stop or cut back from cannabis but being unable to do so
  • Having strong cravings for cannabis
  • Using cannabis despite medical or psychological complications
  • Using cannabis in hazardous situations (i.e., when driving a vehicle)
  • Compromising or neglecting other responsibilities to use or recover from cannabis use
  • Developing a tolerance to cannabis (needing more of the substance to achieve the desired effects)
  • Becoming irritable, sad, or incredibly distressed when cannabis is unavailable
  • Experiencing legal issues as a result of cannabis use or distribution

Like all substance use disorders, cannabis use disorder is on a spectrum with mild, moderate, and severe conditions. That said, when left untreated, many substance problems progress.

Additionally, many people with cannabis use disorder diagnoses also meet the criteria for other substance use disorders pertaining to alcohol, opioids, stimulants, or cocaine.

Legalization And The Changing Stigma of Cannabis

More and more people are tolerating and even embracing the role of cannabis in modern society. According to a recent poll conducted by Pew Research, 91% of Americans support legalizing cannabis for both medicinal and recreational purposes. Additionally, only 8% report cannabis use should be illegal in all circumstances.

At this current time of writing, cannabis remains illegal under federal law. Many people think this rule will change soon. At the state-level, recreational cannabis use is legal in 11 states for adults over 21. Additionally, it’s legal for medical use in 33 states.

There are clear benefits to legalization. Many people take medical cannabis for a variety of conditions ranging from cancer to glaucoma to neurodegenerative disorders and Parkinson’s disease. Likewise, even healthcare professionals consider cannabis a virtuous alternative over more powerful medication treatments. Finally, the prospects of increased job growth, tax revenue, and potential investment opportunities appeal to those advocating for legalization.

Yet, there are downsides to consider. Cannabis does have side effects, which can include short-term memory problems, lung damage, and cognitive disruptions. Additionally, legalization makes cannabis easy and accessible. People can walk into a dispensary, flash their ID, and purchase their desired product. While this is an attractive option, easy access raises inherent concern for people who struggle with substance use disorders. Additionally, some people falsely assume that legalization makes substances safer. This just isn’t true. Alcohol and prescription opioids, which are both legal substances, kill thousands of Americans every year.

Cannabis As The Gateway Substance?

Critics have long pointed at cannabis as opening the path to experimenting with other substances. Indeed, some research does suggest that many people who use illicit substances first experiment with cannabis.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) points out that, when adolescent rats are exposed to cannabinoids, they experience weakened dopamine activation in adulthood. They also highlight animal studies examining how THC essentially ‘primes’ the brain for boosted responses to other drugs, such as morphine. This boosted response is known as cross-sensitization.

They postulate that we can apply these general findings to humans. In other words, adolescents who experiment with cannabis may be more vulnerable to abuse other substances- as a means of satisfying dopamine release.

It should be noted that cannabis itself does not guarantee people will use “harder” substances. Additionally, the term ‘gateway’ may be somewhat misleading. For example, because cannabis is fairly accessible, it’s likely that youth have an easier time obtaining this substance over illicit ones.

Likewise, people who are more vulnerable to drug-seeking behaviors may just be more likely to start their drug use with substances like cannabis or alcohol. Their environment or social interactions may simply increase their chances of experimenting with other substances.

How You Can Help Homeless Youth And Support Your Local Community

Unfortunately, there isn’t a single cure for ending the homeless and runaway epidemic. That’s because there isn’t a single cause for these issues- instead, we must examine a variety of both micro and macro-level factors. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness lists several solutions.

Rethinking The Homelessness Stigma

Many people quickly judge those who are experiencing homelessness. They use derogatory language like “addicts” or “transients” or “deadbeat.” They make snap assumptions based on a single observation. Often, they believe they are drastically “different” from homeless people as if they are immune to such harsh conditions.

All individuals should identify the judgments and biases they hold towards people experiencing homelessness. Do you, for instance, assume that someone is on drugs? Do you respond with a nasty look if someone approaches you asking for spare change?

Your thoughts and language influence your perceptions and actions. Judgments limit objectivity. Likewise, dehumanizing human beings only perpetuates the problematic shame and stigma.

If you don’t understand homelessness, take the time to educate yourself. Read books. Watch stories or videos online. Commit to learning to understand what is happening in the world around you. In broadening your awareness, you position yourself to support others who are struggling.

Getting Involved And Volunteering

Across the county, nonprofit agencies work tirelessly to advocate for youth, homelessness, and mental health awareness. You can make a direct difference by getting involved with one of these organizations.

Volunteer Resources
  • VolunteerMatch

    VolunteerMatch matches interested volunteers with local opportunities. Their site lists several cause areas for volunteering, and you can select homelessness and housing. Depending on your region, you may have a variety of options, such as:

    1. Distributing and delivering donated food and hygiene items
    2. Helping individuals find work
    3. Practicing with resume writing and interview assistance
    4. Tutoring
    5. Working in shelters or food banks
  • Stand Up For Kids

    Stand Up For Kids is a national non-profit organization with a mission to end the cycle of youth homelessness. Since 1990, they have supported thousands of struggling individuals by transitioning them from “crisis to connection.” Stand Up For Kids offers several volunteer opportunities, including:

    • Direct service as a counselor
    • Street outreach to provide essential information about local resources
    • Office administration and fundraising support
    • Donating money
    • Donating needed supplies like clothes, hygiene products, food, first-aid products, gift cards, and bus passes
  • Feeding America

    Feeding America seeks to end hunger through its 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries across the country. They identify serving 1 in 7 Americans. Getting involved with Feeding America can include:

    • Committing to a monthly monetary donation
    • Sorting and packing food for distribution
    • Volunteering at food drives
    • Assisting at mobile pantries
    • Delivering meals to vulnerable populations
    • Fundraising and spreading awareness about ending hunger
  • National Coalition For The Homeless

    The National Coalition For The Homeless provides resources and support for struggling Americans. They are associated with several agencies nationwide, and volunteer opportunities include:

    • Distributing and serving food
    • Cleaning buildings
    • Donating your time for virtual services (building websites, answering phones, providing accounting support)

Understanding The Common Barriers Homeless Youth Face

Unfortunately, we don’t have a single solution for solving homelessness. That’s because the problem is complex, multifaceted, and often systemic. Many youths find themselves in challenging cycles that keep them in distress. Trauma, substance use, poverty, and a lack of family support can all impact one’s ability to seek and accept help.

Barriers Homeless Youth Face

Often, people experiencing homelessness identify long histories of life challenges. Many didn’t have “happy” childhoods. Similarly, many of them lack the support needed to change their circumstances.

  • Lack of education

    Lack of education often poses numerous challenges associated with networking opportunities, higher education, or securing employment.

  • Lack of finances

    Lack of finances can make all necessary life functions challenging. For example, it can hinder someone from obtaining the clothes they need for a job interview. It can prevent them from going to the dentist if they experience tooth pain. Homeless people must constantly assess the best ways to stretch a dollar- and this often means going without most essentials.

  • Lack of family support

    Lack of family support often means that youth turn to other people, like their peers, to feel connected and accepted. Unfortunately, these peer groups may not have their best interests in mind.

  • Lack of stable employment

    Lack of stable employment perpetuates financial distress, and it can also exacerbate symptoms of depression and anxiety. For many people, their work provides a sense of fulfillment. It fosters their identity.

  • Legal issues

    Both resolved and unresolved legal issues can impact all areas of an individual’s life including their housing, employment, and finances.

  • Lack of reliable transportation

    Lack of reliable transportation can severely limit one’s ability to work, attend school, or attend essential appointments.

  • Lack of health insurance

    Lack of health insurance can devastate one’s financial well-being if a medical emergency occurs. Likewise, “small” issues could accumulate over time- if the individual does not or cannot address them, they can escalate into bigger issues.

Advice For Homeless Youth

If you are struggling with homelessness, you may feel discouraged, depressed, and downright exhausted. You may believe that you’re stuck in a never-ending cycle, and this belief can feel paralyzing.

First, understand that change is possible, and help is available. No matter your circumstances, you can turn your life around. There are many resources and organizations listed below that are dedicated to ending homelessness. While reaching out may feel scary, you deserve to live a meaningful, safe, and productive life.

Additional Resources

  • 211

    211 connects people with essential needs related to housing, food, healthcare, financial assistance, and mental health treatment. If you don’t know where to turn, this call can be the first step towards change.

  • Crisis Text Line

    Crisis Text Line provides confidential support via texting with trained crisis counselors.

  • Feeding America

    Feeding America distributes over 300 million meals a year to hungry Americans. This site offers a search tool for locating local food banks.

  • connects users to local pantries, soup kitchens, and food banks.

  • HUD Exchange

    HUD Exchange offers a variety of resources and programs related to housing, education, and decriminalizing homelessness.

  • National Coalition For The Homeless

    This organization consists of a vast network of activists, advocates, and individuals who are currently experiencing or have experienced homelessness. Their site lists national resources, reports, and factsheets pertaining to homelessness.

  • National Health Care for the Homeless Council

    This membership connects health care professionals advocating to end homelessness and improve care. The site has an extensive directory that lists state-by-state resources.

  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline

    This crisis hotline provides confidential, 24/7 support for people in acute distress. It offers immediate help and can also connect people to local centers.


Absolute Advocacy. “The Risk of Drug Abuse among Homeless and Runaway Youths.” Accessed on April 13, 2020.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Teen Substance Use & Risks.” Accessed on April 13, 2020.

ChapinHall. “Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America.” Accessed on April 13, 2020.

Feantsa Position. “Recognizing The Link Between Trauma And Homelessness.” Accessed on April 15, 2020.

Giving Compass. “Homelessness: What To Know And How To Help.” Accessed on April 13, 2020.

National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Mental Health By The Numbers.” Accessed on April 13, 2020.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Is marijuana a gateway drug?” Accessed on April 16, 2020.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What is marijuana?” Accessed on April 15, 2020.

Pew Research. “Two-thirds of Americans support marijuana legalization.” Accessed on April 14. 2020.

Taylor & Francis Online. “Drug use patterns and predictors among homeless youth: Results of an ecological momentary assessment.” Accessed on April 13, 2020.

The Chronicle of Social Change. “More than 12,000 California Youth are Homeless. What’s Being Done to Change That?” Accessed on April 13, 2020.

VeryWell Mind. “Recognize the Symptoms of Marijuana Addiction.” Accessed on April 13, 2020.

United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. “Solutions.” Accessed on April 16, 2020.

U.S Department of Health & Human Services. “Marijuana Use In Adolescence.” Accessed on April 15, 2020.