Homelessness is a devastating experience that impacts hundreds of thousands of individuals in the U.S. each day. It has been widely reported that homeless persons experience higher rates of mental disorder, substance abuse, and physical illness than domiciled individuals. Homelessness is also associated with increased risk of exposure to trauma. In addition, about a quarter of homeless individuals in the U.S. report a history of incarceration. Certainly there are multiple pathways to both homelessness and incarceration. More research is needed on the implications and consequences of having a legal history on homeless persons. The purpose of this archival study was to consider the relationship of legal history, i.e., a history of being arrested and/or incarcerated, on mental health-related symptoms and substance abuse in a sample of treatment-seeking homeless persons. It was hoped that research of this kind could lead to more effective assessment and intervention among homeless persons seeking psychological services. The present sample included 121 homeless adult males and females with a mean age of 42 years. The sample was ethnically diverse, predominantly single, and most participants had at least a high school education. All of the participants were residing in a faith-based mission and most were engaged in substance abuse recovery programs at the mission. All of them had voluntarily sought individual psychological services from a university-affiliated mental health clinic located within the shelter. Instruments included the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT), Beck Depression Inventory-II (BDI-II), Drug Abuse Screening Test-20 (DAST-20), Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF), and an Intake Application Form (IAF) used at the clinic to obtain background information and presenting complaints. As predicted, individuals with legal histories reported significantly greater drug abuse problems on the DAST-20 (M = 10.79) than those without legal histories (M = 6.64). However, legal history was not associated with statistically significant differences in BDI-II, AUDIT, or GAF scores. The difference in BDI-II scores approached statistical significance and was in the predicted direction, suggesting that more research is warranted. Exploratory analyses, clinical implications, limitations, and suggestions for future research are also considered.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Homelessness -- Psychology; Substance abuse -- Treatment; Incarceration -- Social aspects

Date of Award


School Affiliation

Graduate School of Education and Psychology



Degree Type


Degree Name


Faculty Advisor

Cary Mitchell