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The Impossibility of a Good Night's Sleep

For people living on the streets or in shelters, sleep deprivation can lead to a host of other problems.

“Joe,” a man who has been homeless several times, knows how difficult it can be to get enough sleep without permanent housing.

“Where and how you sleep is often a matter of discipline when residentially challenged,” said Joe. “In a shelter, you have to be up and out by a certain time. If [you’re sleeping in] a vehicle, you have to have it moved by a certain time. You're on others’ schedules. And this is where sleep deprivation hits the hardest. It adds up.”

“Without a doubt, sleep is the biggest issue for homeless people,” writes Kevin Barbieux, a San Diego-based blogger and self-proclaimed “chronic homeless man”. Barbieux who writes under the name The Homeless Guy. Barbieux, who blogs using a donated laptop or using library computers, has alternated between transitional housing and no housing at all.

“Homeless advocates are always focused on what are believed to be the root causes of homelessness, and providing the basics of food, shelter and clothing to those who do without,” he continues. “And although those things are important in their own way, they don't affect homeless people with the intensity that sleep does (or the lack thereof).”

For individuals without permanent housing, sleep is difficult to come by. When there’s no way to secure your personal belongings, it’s dangerous and frightening to be as vulnerable as we are when we’re in a truly restful sleep.

As a result, sleep becomes a matter of when-you-can, where-you-can. And often, you just can’t, leading to a host of other mental and physical ailments.

Sleep deprivation has also been linked to an increase in mental illness. Schizophrenia-like symptoms may develop, which is problematic in a population that already experiences a higher-than-average likelihood of suffering from the disease.

The dangers of the elements (in colder climates, even nodding off in the winter may be a death sentence), the possibility of attack, and the physical maladies that arise from perpetual dampness and grime make achieving good sleep an impossible feat.

Even finding enough ground to stake out can be difficult. The discomfort of homelessness has driven businesses to extreme measures. In London, some buildings have erected “anti-homeless spikes.”

Barbiuex notes that shelters, which are often considered to be the safest, best option by those who aren’t homeless, come with their own set of problems. As he writes in his blog:

You check in to a homeless shelter and hope for the best. But the ‘best’ is not offered at shelters. You will be in a room with anywhere from 25 to 150 other homeless people, and not all of them will be ready to go to sleep. They will be talking, laughing or yelling, getting into fights (verbal and physical) making noises, the mentally ill will be trying to wind down from their constant hallucinations. After a couple hours, most everyone has settled in to sleep, and you'll get some sleep.

When the shelters are full, those without full-time housing take refuge in other spaces, which offer varying degrees of safety. Cars provide some measure of privacy but are far from ideal. Storage units, motels, and tent cities are other options.

“Suffering from a lack of sleep, just how is a homeless person supposed to do all the things necessary for overcoming their homelessness?” asks Barbieux.

Adapted from

Homelessness and the Impossibility of a Good Night's Sleep

Hanna Brooks Olsen, The Atlantic




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