Substance use and homelessness among emergency department patients

Kelly M. Doran, Neloufar Rahai, Ryan P. McCormack, Jacqueline Milian, Donna Shelley, John Rotrosen, Lillian Gelberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Homelessness and substance use often coexist, resulting in high morbidity. Emergency department (ED) patients have disproportionate rates of both homelessness and substance use, yet little research has examined the overlap of these issues in the ED setting. We aimed to characterize alcohol and drug use in a sample of homeless vs. non-homeless ED patients. Methods: A random sample of urban hospital ED patients were invited to complete an interview regarding housing, substance use, and other health and social factors. We compared substance use characteristics among patients who did vs. did not report current literal (streets/shelter) homelessness. Additional analyses were performed using a broader definition of homelessness in the past 12-months. Results: Patients who were currently homeless (n = 316, 13.7%) versus non-homeless (n = 1,993, 86.3%) had higher rates of past year unhealthy alcohol use (44.4% vs. 30.5%, p <.0001), any drug use (40.8% vs. 18.8%, p <.0001), heroin use (16.7% vs. 3.8%, p <.0001), prescription opioid use (12.5% vs. 4.4%, p <.0001), and lifetime opioid overdose (15.8% vs. 3.7%, p <.0001). In multivariable analyses, current homelessness remained significantly associated with unhealthy alcohol use, AUDIT scores among unhealthy alcohol users, any drug use, heroin use, and opioid overdose; past 12-month homelessness was additionally associated with DAST-10 scores among drug users and prescription opioid use. Conclusions: Patients experiencing homelessness have higher rates and greater severity of alcohol and drug use than other ED patients across a range of measures. These findings have implications for planning services for patients with concurrent substance use and housing problems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)328-333
Number of pages6
JournalDrug and alcohol dependence
StatePublished - Jul 1 2018


  • Alcohol
  • Drugs
  • Emergency service
  • Homelessness
  • Opioids
  • Overdose
  • Vulnerable populations

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Toxicology
  • Pharmacology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Pharmacology (medical)


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