I Spent the Night With a Houseless Meth Addict


When I answered the phone my hospital social worker friend asked if I was busy that weekend.  A woman had given birth that week and both she and her newborn had tested positive for meth.  There is a mother/baby rehab facility, but they didn’t have a room until Tuesday, the hospital needed to discharge them, and they had a motel room lined up, but because of the addiction the mother needed to be supervised at all times.  Would I be willing to take a couple of shifts just being with this mom, so that she didn’t have to be separated from her baby?

Sure why not!

I’ve done overnight shifts at houseless shelters and I was an accredited volunteer Lactation Counselor when my kids were young, so these are two populations I’m familiar with.  I signed up for the 6pm to 2am shift. I just needed to keep my eyes on the baby at all times and make sure the mom didn’t do anything unsafe. No substance use, no unapproved guests, no sleeping with the baby, because withdrawal was making her drowsy. So I put on my yoga pants and my mask to protect this little one who cannot yet be vaccinated, and showed up at the motel for my shift.

What did you imagine when you read the words, “houseless meth addict?”

  • You probably wondered why I used the term, “houseless” rather than homeless. This is because most people who are unhoused are unhoused in the area where they were previously housed. People have family, friends, and community, sometimes even jobs that they are trying to stay close to. They have a hometown they are from and a neighborhood they call home, just not housing.

  • You’ve probably heard all kinds of scary things about meth. It is a scary drug. It’s extremely addictive and corrosive - many people addicted to meth have missing, blackened or whittled down teeth because of the corrosiveness of meth.

  • Addiction is so common that we probably all know someone who has an addiction. There are so many things people can become addicted to: alcohol, drugs, gambling, tobacco, internet, etc. It’s important to remember that addiction is a disease. No one chooses to become an addict! Some addictions begin with a prescription to opioids. Other addictions begin with social substance use, like social drinking that becomes physical/mental/emotional dependency. Addiction is not a moral failing, it’s a treatable disease.

  • When we think about houseless addicts we often picture the person shouting incoherently on a street corner, and sometimes those people are houseless and addicted, but they are usually mentally ill or developmentally disabled and using substances to try to self-medicate. Some of those shouters are not even houseless.

When I arrived at the motel, the mom was sitting on the bed holding her sleeping baby and watching a Twilight Movie Marathon on TV. She was clear eyed, a little tired, and clearly in love with her newborn baby. She was very thin. If it weren’t for her deflated post pregnancy belly, you would never have known she had just given birth a few days ago. Her arms and legs were thin and her collar and cheek bones were prominent. The baby was also very small, very sleepy, and heartbreakingly perfect. I think I spent an hour staring at baby’s tiny perfect ear. We didn’t talk much. Mom was tired from the hard work of birth and withdrawal. She did the work of caring for her baby, diapers, bottles, picking baby up when they fussed. I got to do the 12am feeding so mom could get a few hours of sleep. Then I held him, because I could. Because my babies are 21 and 24 and being in the presence of new life is sacred.

At 2am another Christian showed up to take the next 8 hour shift, because following Jesus means that we care for “the least of these,” (Matt. 25:40) because Jesus considers those in need to be Jesus’ family. After all, baby Jesus didn’t even get to stay in a motel room, so I think it’s not a stretch for Jesus to identify with the situation of a houseless mom and baby.

I don’t know what will happen to Mom and Baby. I pray for them. I pray that Mom will get the treatment and ongoing support she needs to be a good mom and take care of herself. I pray that Baby will be safe and loved and have a bright future. And I fully recognize that these prayers may be at odds. I also know that prayers are not enough. The gap between wages and housing costs is a perilous canyon into which many young families are falling. The American Dream of being able to work your way up into a better life is mostly an unachievable nightmare for those not born into upper middle class households. There is not enough affordable housing. There are not enough addiction treatment facilities. There are not enough mental health providers. We all want the houseless off our streets, but there is literally nowhere for them to go and not enough help to keep them off the streets.

I tell you this story, with its click-bait title, not so that you will admire me, but in hope that you will not be afraid. That you will not be afraid of supportive and affordable housing being developed in your neighborhood.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time interacting with people who are houseless, addicted, and mentally ill, and I’ve never been in danger. I’m careful and always mindful of the situation, but most of all, I try to see them as member’s of Jesus’ family, because that’s how Jesus describes them in Matthew chapter 25. They are often hopeless, tired, frightened, and desperate, but they are people - they are Beloved Children of God.

~ Rev Heather Riggs, pastor of Montavilla and Tabor Heights UMCs in Portland, Oregon