I barely slept during the full two years I was homeless.
One night, at around 3 a.m., after hours of searching for a spot, I curled up on a portion of soft, thick grass. An hour later, automatic sprinklers drenched me.
I sloshed to the edges of a wilderness park in Salt Lake City, where I finally found a generous-size wooden bench. I changed my socks and fell in and out of sleep for the next two hours, waking up to my own violent shivering.
Sleep deprivation haunts unhoused people, worsening trauma and mental and physical illnesses. Bobby Watts, who heads the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, says that “sleeplessness in homelessness is a public health crisis.”
There are more than 554,000 homeless people in this country, estimates the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Shelters aren’t providing the needed respite — 70 percent of homeless individuals who experienced shelter stays reported feeling so tired they couldn’t function, according to a 2011 study.
The simplest way for people to drastically improve the quality of their lives, Watts notes, is: “Get more sleep.” And for homeless people, getting a good rest could be key to rebuilding self-sufficiency.
But the majority of shelters place people in barrack-type rooms where residents can’t control noise, temperature, lighting, or even what time they must go to bed or wake up.
This was my experience. That night, in 2016, I’d already walked more than 3 miles from the homeless shelter, which didn’t have any remaining beds that night — only thin rubber mats on tiled floors in fluorescent-lit rooms filled with sad, angry, and often loud women.
Situations like mine are finally getting some attention.
New York architect Ira Mitchneck designed a new shelter for homeless residents ages 50 and older, dubbed Valley Lodge. Until a few months ago, the shelter resembled college dorms, and relied on windows for ventilation.
The new Valley Lodge offers a ventilation system and electric power for each resident, along with acoustically rated windows and air conditioning. A range of spaces in the building accommodates different sleep schedules, and the lighting is much more humane.
There are more modest solutions to combat sleeplessness, too.
In Lane County, Oregon, at the ShelterCare organization, short-term housing units come with locked doors, allowing clients to manage their sleeping environments. Journey of Hope, a Salt Lake City nonprofit that helps harmed women, regularly provides the privacy of its conference room so homeless clients can catch up on sleep during office hours.
Shannon Miller Cox, the executive director, said: “Often, they fall asleep sitting upright in our chairs, and snore and sleep for hours at a time. We feed them coffee and snacks and cover them with blankets. They are exhausted.”
Even the simplicity of an extended nap can do a world of good. One of Miller Cox’s clients, a woman who’d been living in her van, got enough sleep to reach an epiphany, he recalled. “After getting enough rest, she gained the clarity that she wanted to change her life. She got sober, got a job as a dishwasher, and now has her own apartment.”
My own homelessness ended when a pastor brought me to Journey of Hope. In our first meeting, Miller Cox gave me a job as a house mom in a transitional residence for women emerging from homelessness and incarceration.
But on that seemingly unending spring night months earlier, I never did find real rest.
I got up from that last bench and walked to a food pantry as the sun rose. There, I drank a free cup of black coffee, something I hoped would keep me awake enough to search for the next place to rest my head.