Sleep Deprivation: The Ultimate Curse of Homelessness

sleeping homeless

Most people will experience sleep problems at some point in their lives. It might be a bout of insomnia that lasts a few days or even a few months. It may be resolved by herbal supplements or therapy or, in severe cases, prescription sleep medication. Most people will eventually get through the ordeal.

If you’ve ever suffered from any problem that causes sleep issues, you certainly sympathize with anyone else going through it. Imagine what it might be like to be in a situation where you might never sleep normally again! If that sounds scary and horrible, it should – that is what most unhoused people face regularly.

Many people believe that drugs, alcohol, and mental illness are the top driving forces causing homelessness. However, I’ve read in more than one article homelessness often happens first, and drug use follows as one is experiencing homelessness. They begin using drugs or alcohol not only to escape the pain but to find a way to sleep (or stay alert to protect themselves, but that’s another topic). Chronic sleep problems can lead to the use of drugs or alcohol with both housed and unhoused people.

Sleep deprivation can also make people insane. How many people have you encountered who have a couple of bad nights without sleep and, as a result, they are on edge and nasty? Imagine stretching that into weeks, months, and eventually years!

I’ve heard from those who’ve stayed in shelters, especially women, that they were so afraid of being robbed, they slept “with one eye open.” This is no different than being on the street or in your vehicle, where you also sleep “with one eye open.”

How can anyone sleep peacefully with that anxiety on their back?

I know that my most significant anxiety in a vehicle comes from the thought that somebody will knock on my van. Whether police, another homeless person, or someone with ill-intents might knock on my van, and I will be forced to see who it is or risk them smashing in my window while I’m inside.

Even if you get into a hotel or someone else’s house for a while, it is hard to sleep well. Maybe it’s because it’s not your bed. Maybe it’s not that comfortable. Or maybe it is because you know it is temporary, and you will be back out into the bad place shortly. The anticipatory anxiety is unbelievable and well warranted. No one will ever tell me it is not genuinely earned.

If everyone were required to live homeless for just one month of their lives, the compassion for homeless people might increase. I know there would be those who survive the ordeal and then say things like, “I went through it, and I survived just fine. Those other people are weak and lazy”. However, I think more people would come out of it realizing that no one WANTS this life. It’s not living – it is barely even surviving.

The fact is if housing prices weren’t out of control and salaries so out of step with the skyrocketing costs of living. If there were enough resources for those who cannot make ends meet independently, then the number of people unhoused would not be increasing so rapidly.

There is no safe place to go. Nowhere to feel safe enough to sleep soundly. As I write this, it is late May, and we’ve already had temperatures exceed 90 for over a week! My multiple sclerosis-related heat intolerance starts up when I am in any place much over 68 degrees. Imagine being stuck in a van in the summer heat and humidity. Gas prices are outrageously high, too, and I cannot afford to run the vehicle for air conditioning, which brings me to another important point. Shade.

Most people don’t think much about shade until they desperately need it. I look around every parking lot in my area, and there is little shade to be found. As badly as trees are needed, there are very few. Parking lots are barren, concrete deserts with unimaginable heat radiating up off the blacktop all day. Only when the sun is quite low does shade become available. However, the blacktop remains hot well into the night.

During the summer, homeless people stuck in their vehicles are truly screwed.

The daytime heat and humidity can destroy food, which is kept cool in a small cooler with a few ice cubes, which doesn’t keep things very cold in summer. You also have to worry about electronics and excessive heat. Your USB cords get sticky as the sun turns the rubber to goo on the dashboard while connected to a solar charger.

And this is just a sample of things that happen in a vehicle in summer. It is a nightmare. With no shade, there is no place to rest by day. At night, you fear police harassment and strangers. Many homeless people sleep by day and stay on guard all night.

I do not take any drugs, nor do I use alcohol. I never will. As a person on the autism spectrum, I am not “mentally ill.” I am autistic. There are no drugs that would “fix” me, and I won’t take anything for anxiety. I have seen too many people become dependent on medication or have side effects. I have enough physical ailments now from autoimmune/chronic illnesses. People suggesting prescription drugs or using marijuana or brandy or narcotics or pretty much anything beyond magnesium supplements are not options for me.

I face homelessness unfiltered and head-on.

As I write this, I fear that I will never sleep well again. Even when I can stay at a friend’s home or hotel, getting any quality sleep is hard. Because of my chronic pain issues, I had a glorious pillow top mattress that was the only kind that properly supported me and relieved pressure points. Beds in cheap hotels are horrible. At friends’ houses, I sleep on floors (sometimes in a tent on the floor if they have a big enough house), but always on a makeshift bed of foams and folded blankets like my “bed” in my van.

In the end, good, restorative sleep is vital to managing my conditions. But it is something unhoused people just never get.

Homeless Loki

Homeless Loki


Homeless Loki is a disabled homeless person also on the autism spectrum currently homeless in upstate New York

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