Provider Views of Harm Reduction Versus Abstinence Policies Within Homeless Services for Dually Diagnosed Adults
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Harm reduction is considered by many to be a legitimate alternative to abstinence-based services for dually diagnosed individuals, yet there is limited understanding of how varying approaches affect front-line practice within services for homeless adults. This paper examines how front-line providers working with individuals who have experienced homelessness, serious mental illness, and addiction view policies of harm reduction versus abstinence within two different approaches to homeless services: the traditional or “treatment first” approach that requires abstinence, and the more recent housing first approach that incorporates harm reduction. As part of a federally funded qualitative study, 129 in-depth interviews conducted with 41 providers were thematically analyzed to understand how providers view harm reduction versus abstinence approaches. Themes included the following: (a) harm reduction as a welcomed alternative, (b) working with ambiguity, and (c) accommodating abstinence. Drawing on recovery principles, the authors consider the broader implications of the findings for behavioral health care with this population.