It’s difficult to sleep if you don’t have a home. It’s especially difficult to sleep deeply when you have no way to secure your personal belongings and you’re worried about your personal safety.
Unfortunately, this describes what sleeping is like for the homeless.
The State of Homelessness in the United States
Each year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) releases their annual Homeless Assessment Report. In 2016, they reported:
- Nearly 550,000 people are homeless on any given night in the United States.
- Two-thirds stay in emergency shelters or transitional housing, while one-third sleep in an unsheltered location on the street.
- 35% of the homeless population are families with children.
- 22% of the homeless are children under the age of 18.
- 10% of the homeless are veterans.
- Senior homelessness is on the rise, with the amount of homeless seniors expected to increase to 95,000 by 2050.
- Just five states account for half of the homeless population: California (22%), New York (16%), Florida (6%), Texas (4%), and Washington (4%).
- The city with the highest population of homeless people is New York City.
Fortunately, despite these statistics, the trends suggest that shelters and transitional housing programs work. Between 2015 and 2016, the number of people staying in such programs declined by 5%.
What Factors Contribute to Homelessness?
Once a person finds themselves homeless, it is an uphill battle faced with many challenges. Many things contribute to a person becoming homeless: lack of affordable housing, increasing criminalization of homelessness, and mental illness.
Lack of Housing
According to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, there is a serious gap between the amount of affordable housing and rental assistance available, and the amount of people who need such help. Due to budget cuts, tens of thousands of low-income affordable housing units are lost every year. Compared to 2001’s numbers, one-eighth of these housing units are permanently gone.
There’s only enough government-funded public rental assistance to go around for one in four of the low-income households. The remaining 75% find themselves on multi-year waiting lists.
Since the 2008 crisis, over 5 million homes have foreclosed. As you can see from the chart below capturing the homeless population in New York City, there has been a sharp rise in homelessness since then.
Criminalization of Homelessness
More cities are making homelessness and related activities a crime. Homeless people find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, with nowhere to go.
According to a 2014 survey of 287 cities by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, the following activities are illegal in a percentage of cities:
- Sitting or lying down in certain public places (53%)
- Sleeping in your car (43%)
- Loitering (33%)
- Begging (24%)
- Sleeping in public (18%)
People living with mental illness make up a substantially larger percentage of the homeless population, as reported by the National Coalition for the Homeless. About a quarter of homeless people are estimated to suffer from severe mental illness, as compared to 6% of the general population. Schizophrenia in particular is very common among the homeless.
Many homeless veterans and women suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Veterans may have PTSD from their time spent in combat. The vast majority of homeless women (as high as 90%) end up homeless when they escape domestic violence or sexual assault, and suffer PTSD from the trauma they experienced.
Homelessness and Sleep
A good sleep environment requires darkness and quiet. Both are hard to come by when you’re staying in a homeless shelter or sleeping on the street surrounded by varied noise from cars, building noises, and other people.
Sleep is an overlooked issue for homeless people. There are resources, albeit insufficient, for food, shelter, and employment, but not for sleep.
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. ...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). Without a doubt, sleep is the biggest issue for homeless people.- Kevin Barbieux, San Diego-based blogger known as The Homeless Guy
It’s not just about not having a home. Many factors make it difficult for homeless people to get quality sleep, such as:
- Noise from people or cars
- Light from the street or the sun
- Extreme heat, cold, or inclement weather
- Fear of being robbed, physically or sexually assaulted, or killed
- Dirtiness of the ground due to vermin and trash
- Physical ailments (illness, hunger, intoxication, injuries)
Sleep deprivation for even just a night or two can vastly affect your productivity and mental processing. Imagine what sleeping for varying amounts in strange environments over several days does to your body, your circadian rhythms, and your mind. It wreaks havoc on your system. Unfortunately, this is the case for many homeless people.
The average adult needs 6 to 9 hours of sleep per night. By contrast, homeless people report getting as low as 3.5 hours of sleep per night. Often, that sleep is interrupted for a variety of reasons, so it’s rare for a homeless person to have truly restful sleep.
The effects of long-term sleep deprivation are serious. It deprives your body of the ability to rest your mind and your organs and revitalize itself. Chronic sleep deprivation increases your risk for:
It’s not uncommon for homeless people to start taking drugs to stay awake, and then using different drugs to get themselves to fall asleep – developing a dangerous, unhealthy habit. Although many people drink to help themselves fall asleep, alcohol actually disrupts REM sleep later in the night, which is vital to getting a good night’s sleep.
Sleep deprivation worsens symptoms of mental illness. Insomnia can lead to depression.
People suffering from PTSD, whether a veteran, a victim of sexual or physical assault, or another traumatic reason or event that may have led to the homelessness itself, often have difficulty sleeping. They’re living with paranoia and fear, and are more likely to have nightmares.
Since sleep deprivation makes it more difficult to think clearly, it’s even harder to get a job. Over time, a vicious cycle emerges that makes it more challenging for homeless people to transition to a more stable living environment.
Then, once they find transitional or more stable housing, many homeless people aren’t used to the quiet, so their sleep deprivation can continue even in a more stable setting.
Sleeping in a Homeless Shelter
Emergency shelters were designed to give the homeless a place to sleep for the night. While they provide shelter from environmental hazards such as vermin and extreme weather, they’re not necessarily safe, and they’re certainly not conducive to sleep.
Emergency shelters typically offer a “dormitory” setting where there can be as many as 100 cots or mattresses. Guests may sleep in a shared space with people of the opposite sex, which poses a precarious situation for homeless women.
Some shelters do require guests to be sober and pass a screening process. However, in many a guest finds themselves sleeping among other people who are up making noise talking to themselves or each other, fighting, yelling, drunk, and suffering from hallucinations or mental illness.
70% of those sleeping in a shelter said they felt so tired they couldn’t function normally the following day, according to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. They reported that their sleep was interrupted due to being woken up by other people’s snoring (64%), their mind racing (51%), fear of physical harm or injury (27%), or voices in their head (10%).
Sleeping on the Street
The main obstacle homeless people face in getting admitted to a shelter is overcrowding. There simply aren’t enough beds. During periods of extreme cold or heat, many emergency shelters open up additional warming beds and cots to accommodate more people.
Other obstacles that prevent homeless people from sleeping in emergency shelters are sobriety, and surprisingly, jobs. Many emergency shelters require residents to pass a drug and alcohol tests. If a homeless person is intoxicated, they won’t be admitted to the shelter. If a homeless person has a job, they may not be able to get off work in time to secure a spot in line for shelter admittance.
In some cases, homeless people choose to sleep on the street. If you’re a woman or LGBT, you may not feel safe in a shared dormitory setting.
Pets also pose an issue. For many homeless people, a pet is not only their companion and family, but their main protection against being robbed or attacked. Many shelters prohibit pets, forcing these people to stay on the street.
Homeless Shelter Directory
Every state has resources and shelters available for homeless people. We’ve listed homeless shelters for each state below, in alphabetical order.
All of these shelters offer one of three types of shelter: emergency overnight shelter, day shelter, or transitional housing. Each listing provides the following information:
- Address, phone number, and website
- Who is admitted to the shelter (e.g. men, women, children)
- The type of shelter and housing programs offered
- Whether basic necessities are provided (meals, clothing, toiletries)
- Any additional programs or services (e.g. case management, child care, bible study, job training)
National and Online Resources for Homelessness
There are a variety of nonprofits and agencies working to research causes of homelessness, provide education, and suggest and fund solutions to end homelessness.
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Online chat is accessible from 7am – 2am Central Time every day.
- Youth and teens can access the National Runaway Safeline 24/7 at 1-800-RUNAWAY (786-2929) or via Live Chat or email to get confidential help and support. Parents can also call the line to be referred to support services to prevent their child from running away.
- Veterans can call the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at 1-877-4AID-VET (424-3838) 24/7 to speak confidentially with a VA counselor and receive help.
- The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (1-800-VET-HELP) is a nonprofit devoted to advancing public policy for homeless veterans. Their resource page includes reference material and help on accessing benefits or locating shelter.
Additional Federal Resources for the Homeless:
- The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development HUD Exchange is a resource hub for homeless people. The site lists directories and contact information for affordable rental housing, food banks, WIC, health care, substance abuse treatment, HIV/AIDS care services, employment training, and veterans services.
- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers resources for homeless, including directories for youth shelters and community health care centers.
- The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs provides resources and referrals for homeless veterans in need of emergency shelter, permanent affordable housing, and supportive services.
Nonprofit Agencies Serving the Homeless:
- The National Health Care for the Homeless Council is a network of over 10,000 health care professionals working to end homelessness. The website provides a list of clinical and health care resources for the homeless, low-income populations, and anyone who has limited access to health care.
- The National Coalition for the Homeless provides referrals for homeless or people or people in danger of being homeless. The housing justice reform agency partners with homeless people in their mission to address the rights of all homeless, regardless of age, gender, sexuality, or veteran status.
- The National Center for Homeless Education lists contact information for each state’s Education of Homeless Children and Youth division.
- The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty is a non-profit legal organization that advocates for policy change and works with local organizations to advance the legal needs and social justice reform for the homeless.
- Pets of the Homeless is a non-profit that provides veterinary care and food to homeless pets. The site lists free pet food providers and pet-friendly shelters for the homeless, as well as donation sites for non-homeless looking to help.