Perspectives and recommendations of opioid overdose survivors experiencing unsheltered homelessness on housing, overdose, and substance use treatment in Boston, MA

Type: Journal Article
Date: July 2023


Ranjani Paradise, Jeffrey Desmarais, Shannon O’Malley, Andres Hoyos-Cespedes, Alykhan Nurani, Alexander Walley, Jaylen Clarke, Sunday Taylor, Daniel Dooley, Angela Bazzi, Simeon Kimmel. Perspectives and Recommendations of Opioid Overdose Survivors Experiencing Unsheltered Homelessness on Housing, Overdose, and Substance Use Treatment in Boston, MA. International Journal of Drug Policy (September 2023). 


Introduction- Opioid overdose causes one in four deaths among people experiencing homelessness in Boston, MA. To reduce overdose risks, the experience and perspectives of people experiencing homelessness should be incorporated into housing, overdose prevention, and substance use treatment efforts.

Methods- In 2021, we conducted qualitative interviews with 59 opioid overdose survivors to inform equitable access to treatment services. In response to policy debate surrounding a public drug scene near a key recruitment site, we conducted a targeted thematic analysis of transcribed interview data from a subset of participants experiencing unsheltered homelessness (n=29) to explore their perspectives and recommendations on housing, overdose prevention, and substance use treatment.

Results- Among 29 participants who identified as non-Hispanic Black (n=10), Hispanic/Latinx (n=10), or as non-Hispanic White (n=9), the median number of self-reported opioid overdoses in the past three months was 2.0 (SD 3.7). Three themes emerged from this targeted analysis: (1) Participants described inadequate housing resources and unwelcoming shelter environments. (2) Participants near a large public drug scene explained how unsheltered homelessness was chaotic, dangerous, and disruptive to recovery goals. (3) Participants provided recommendations for improving housing and addiction treatment systems and including their perspectives in the development of solutions to the intersecting housing and opioid overdose crises.

Conclusions- The overdose prevention, housing and substance use treatment systems must address the needs of opioid overdose survivors experiencing unsheltered homelessness. Overdose survivors experiencing unsheltered homelessness described a chaotic public drug scene but resorted to residing in nearby encampments because the existing shelter, housing, and addiction treatment systems were unwelcoming, difficult to navigate, or unaffordable. Despite efforts to provide low-threshold housing in Boston, additional low-barrier housing services (i.e., including harm reduction resources and without “sobriety” requirements) could promote the health and safety of people who use drugs and are experiencing homelessness.

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