Sleeping While Homeless: The Incessant Struggle

By Stacey McKenna

On any given night, nearly 600,000 Americans try to in conditions deemed uninhabitable — in cars, emergency shelters, and on the streets. But quality rest, for most, remains elusive. “There’s really no good way for people who are homeless — whether they’re sleeping in shelters or on the street — to get quality sleep at night,” says Zach Penland, Project Manager for Red Tail Ponds, Northern Colorado’s first permanent supportive housing complex. “It’s a very uneasy sleep,” Penland explains. “They never know when they’ll be woken up by the police, or if somebody might attack them. There’s constant noise and worry.”

According to a 2015 report entitled No Right to Rest: Criminalizing Homelessness in Colorado, 60% of respondents experienced frequent sleep disruptions due to bans on “camping” or sleeping in public. Wendall, 37, has been homeless on and off for most of his life, most recently in Fort Collins, Colorado. “The cops don’t let us sleep at night around here,” he says. “They messed with us three times last night. Now, why would they do that? Why can’t we sleep? We’re only people.”

In fact, in August 2014, Fort Collins police conducted a major sweep of homeless campsites, issuing 32 citations and raiding 54 illegal sites. Though shelter beds remain too few here and throughout the region, anti-camping and anti-sleeping policies persist. Furthermore, the vast majority of shelters simply can’t accommodate certain populations, including LGBTQ individuals, families, youth, people with disabilities or those with pets.

And while scoring a bed in a shelter may protect against camping tickets and police “move alongs,” it doesn’t provide ideal sleeping conditions. Shelters tend to be overcrowded, so even the best-run are noisy, Penland says. At their worst, the facilities are dirty and downright dangerous. According to No Right to Rest, many avoid shelters because they fear “bugs, violence, theft, and unsanitary conditions which they often associate with shelters.”

Ray Lyall, 57, has been homeless in Denver for just over two years and working with the city’s grassroots activist organization Denver Homeless Out Loud for most of that time. Given the choice, he prefers to “sleep out” over staying in shelters. “Without really banging shelters,” he says, “there’s just too much criminal activity there . . . And there’s bugs . . . It’s not a shelter in any way shape or form other than it’s got a roof over it.”

A growing body of scholarly evidence suggests that sleep deprivation harms both body and mind, leading to mood struggles, cognitive deficits, and numerous health problems. For homeless individuals, who typically scramble to catch enough rest, these consequences magnify existing health, mental health, and behavioral challenges. In turn, this exacerbates struggles to acquire and maintain suitable housing.

Projects such as Red Tail Ponds offer relief for some via permanent housing and numerous supportive services. “Once they get into housing, they really spend those first few days, even weeks, catching up,” Penland says. And that sleep, he observes, changes people.

But these programs, while on the rise, do not meet the continued need. Hundreds of thousands of homeless Americans still struggle to find safe places to sleep. In response, numerous organizations continue their push for a Right to Rest Act to decriminalize sleeping outdoors.

Tags:  Sleep

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