“When you sleep on the streets, anything you have in your pockets might be taken; people constantly try to mug you and beat you up – so, in the end, it becomes easier to stay awake.”
That’s what Taz, a 61-year-old Nigerian homeless man who has lived in and around Shoreditch, East London, for over 40 years, told me when I took to the streets a couple of months ago to ask homeless people about how sleep deprivation affects their mental health.
The niggling thought I couldn’t escape was, “Why have I never read about this area of homelessness before?” And when I saw the news last week that Scotland’s government has pledged to reduce homeless people’s stays in hostels and B&Bs to no longer than seven days, my shock turned to anger. I wondered why on earth England hadn’t taken the same measures to fight the injustices homeless people face – particularly at a time when the latest data from the charity Chain shows that there has been a rise in rough sleeping across London over the past year. This is an ongoing, even worsening issue.
Homeless people? Trouble sleeping? Groundbreaking. But it isn’t just a bad night’s sleep every once in a while that we’re dealing with here. Think about it. If you have a late Saturday night and attempt to recover all day on Sunday, you end up slumped over your desk on Monday, exhausted and scrolling through takeaway options for dinner. Crucially, though, by the Tuesday – or Wednesday if you aren’t one for fighting a hangover – you’re refreshed, because you’ve caught up on the sleep you lost.
Homeless people aren’t afforded that luxury. For them, every day is a battle with the tiredness that others are lucky enough to experience just once or twice a week. Unless, of course, you too, suffer with sleep-related issues such as insomnia. That, on top of the fact that constantly having to protect themselves and facing a whole host of other issues are all made worse by sustained sleep loss.
John Groeger, a professor of psychology at Nottingham Trent University, who is also a sleep therapist, says that although sleep loss might “seem like such a trivial concern, it is actually critical to physical and mental health, and the kind of chronic sleep loss that homeless people experience hugely affects their everyday lives.”
Talking to Taz, this was clearly what had happened with him. After explaining why his wife and daughters had left him to start a new life in Prague, he told me that sleep deprivation took a huge toll on his mind, which was common in other homeless people he knew as well. “I end up talking to myself a lot because there’s no one else there,” he said. “Your mind starts playing games on you when you’re tired and it’s so easy to become paranoid because there actually are people out to get you, so you start thinking everyone is.”
What’s worse is that even the very limited temporary accommodation that is available to homeless people – like the kind that Scotland is now trying to ensure they don’t get placed in for long periods – is not always a better option than the streets. Taz told me that hostels and B&Bs can be intimidating places, which provide a bed but very little else. He went on to ask me to imagine sleeping at night and what helped me to feel safe. I must have looked perplexed because before I could respond, he answered for me: “A locked door and a bed where you can lie down knowing that no one is going to hurt you.” He was right, of course. I, like many others, naively assumed temporary accommodation was providing shelter and so helping homeless people get a better night’s sleep. “There are lots of people who try to steal your stuff in them, or take drugs, so although you’re under a roof, you don’t sleep very well. It’s not just about being inside – that doesn’t mean you’ll have a good night’s sleep,” he said.
Links between lack of sleep and poor mental health have long been made by the public health sector, yet for homeless people, it seems to be a grey area blamed on situation and consequence.
Groeger said there needs to be time and money invested in not just housing homeless people, but helping them to have total autonomy in their lives – of which sleep is a huge contributing factor. Perhaps most importantly, what needs to happen now is that we ensure our MP’s don’t continue to quash all other issues – and let’s be honest, there are a lot – with the monster that Brexit has become.
Homelessness is an issue that continues to affect countries everywhere, particularly those who make up the statistics… those who are actually homeless. And if Scotland’s government can make moves to remedy just some of the awful prejudice against homeless people, so can ours. It seems the first step, though, is for this problem to be recognized as just that: a problem.
Sam Hancock, The Independent