Drug Testing in Homeless Shelters

According to the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there were 610,042 homeless people on a given night in January 2013. Of this number, 65% or over 396,000 people were living in transitional housing programs or emergency shelters and the rest were living unsheltered on the streets.

Homeless shelters exist to provide safety and protection from the elements to those in need. They are however plagued with both internal and external problems that often affect how they operate and ultimately how effectively they provide service. These problems include stealing (of employees from the shelter kitchens and of residents from other residents); overcrowding; non-compliance with building safety standards; violent and/or abusive behavior by employees towards residents and vice-versa or residents towards other residents etc.

Drugs, alcohol and violence often surround homeless shelters especially those located in high-crime neighborhoods. While the practice of testing shelter residents for drug use with or without probable cause is a hugely controversial issue and often results to cases of discrimination leveled against shelter operators, many privately-operated shelters do them anyway. For states with any drug testing laws at all, said laws will be about employers testing their employees and this applies to shelter workers as well. The DC Department of Human Services Inspector General could not have said it any better: “The safety of children and youths receiving direct services from employees who do not have complete and satisfactory background checks and drug and alcohol testing may be at risk.”

Background Screening & Drug Testing for Homeless Shelters

 Background checks and pre-employment drug testing – these are common practices for many homeless shelters across the country. Shelter operators need to weed out sexual predators, violent criminals and substance abusers from their pool of potential employees in order to protect residents and other employees from harm.

Background checks typically include any combination of the following:

  • Nationwide Criminal with SSN Trace and Alias
  • Sex Offender Registry
  • Global Criminal Watch List
  • Federal Criminal
  • Nationwide Wants and Warrants

While the best drug testing method to establish a history of substance use is the hair drug test, many homeless shelters simply choose the less expensive option of instant urine drug tests due to budget constraints.

 Random drug testing – is only done (ideally) if there is any reasonable suspicion that an employee or a resident may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Again Urine testing is the method of choice and most shelters use multi-panel drug tests. Instant urine drug test kits are widely popular because of the range of choices that include integrated test cups, instant drug testing cassettes, instant drug testing dip cards, and instant drug testing dip strips.

Advantages of Urine Testing:

  • Budget-friendly
  • Ease of use
  • Instant results
  • Widely available
  • Urine drug test kits can detect drug use from 1 day up to 7 daysafter usage for most drugs; up to 15 days for Phenobarbital and up to 30 daysfor long-term heavy use of marijuana.


According to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health report entitled “Substance Use and Substance Use Disorder by Industry”, drug and alcohol use from 2008 – 2012 for full-time employees aged 18-64 within the Healthcare and Social Assistance industry under which homeless shelters fall, are as follows:

Past month heavy alcohol use: 4.4% (no change from 2003-2007 period)

Past month illicit drug use: 5.5% (down from 5.9% for 2003-2007 period)

Past year substance use disorder: 5.7% (down from 6.4% for 2003-2007 period)

The numbers show a very promising decline, further improving the overall picture for the Healthcare and Social Assistance industry which is practically already at the bottom of these rankings.







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Drug Testing Kits and Background Screening for Homeless Shelters