Crack Addicts Travel Long Downward Spiral

August 24, 1998

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.--Homeless crack cocaine addicts, especially African-American, faced early abuse and violence, leading to progressively unstable adult lives, says researchers from Penn State and Temple University.

"Most of the homeless crack cocaine users that we interviewed had traumatic, chaotic childhoods, often marked by physical and sexual abuse by parents, guardians, siblings and various relatives," says Dr. Eric D. Cohen, assistant professor of sociology at Penn State's Fayette Campus in Uniontown and principal author of the study.

"The users also saw more than their share of domestic violence and in some cases actually witnessed the killing of family members."

Cohen and Dr. Gerald J. Stahler, associate professor of geography and urban studies at Temple University, presented their findings today (Aug. 24) to attendees at the American Sociological Association (ASA) conference.

The researchers' data were based on life history interviews with 31 Black American crack addicts staying at a public homeless center.This was part of a larger analysis of 689 Black American substance-abusing men living in Philadelphia homeless shelters over an 18-month period. This study was funded by the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, an arm of the National Institutes of Health.

Cohen and Stahler's paper, "Life Histories of Crack Using African-American Homeless Men: Salient Themes," will be published by the journal "Contemporary Drug Problems" in early fall.

The Penn State researcher cites testimony from one homeless addict, "John": "I only remember seeing my mother four times in my life -- three times alive and one time dead. She died when I was 10 years old and I was angry about that because everyone else had a mother. I don't remember living with her. She was always too busy whoring around."

"Most inner cities nationwide have a population of substance-abusing homeless men. Thus, our study has significant implications for public health and criminal justice systems all over the country," says Cohen of Penn State.

The more one understands the clients, the better one can develop services and treatments to address client needs. Life histories may provide a broad context of understanding in the development of treatments for homeless crack users, Cohen adds.

"We selected informants on the basis of age, drug use and length of time homeless as well as their willingness to discuss their life histories with interviewers," Cohen notes. "There were no significant differences between the life history sample (31) and the parent study's population (689) in terms of profile."

For the future crack addict, the street became home and gangs often took the place of both family and school, particularly among males. Despite the potential for more violence, gangs offered group solidarity and opportunities for money and adventure.

As sample group members got older, they tried legitimate employment, but it was usually unskilled and low-wage. They either could not or would not stick with it. As they become increasingly unemployable, they gravitated toward drug dealing and other illegal activities as their only means of support, according to the researchers.

Drug-dealers lead a rootless, on-the-run, constantly-on-guard existence and frequently turn into addicts themselves. Bondage to drugs, combined with unstable employment, leads then, by a route slowly but surely to the homeless shelter, say the researchers.

Another sample member, "Herbert," stated: "I moved into crack in 1988 and that's when my world started falling apart. I lost everything in my life. Since I first picked it up I used it constantly until I ended up sleeping on the street."

For the most part, only when they had "bottomed out" did the interviewees seek treatment services.

"To many of the men, drug treatment was viewed as a way to get off the streets for a while," Cohen says. "In some cases, particularly in colder weather, treatment was seen as a much better option than the large city-run shelters characterized by violence, lack of privacy and an overall ambiance of dehumanization.

"Treatment programs, whether it be short-stay detoxification or more long-term inpatient care, were viewed as `hotels' compared to the city shelters," he adds.

Dr. Cohen can be contacted at (724) 430-4273 or at by email.

Penn State

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