Better Stay Healthy: Sleep and Homelessness


March 21, 2016 by poverty2professional

I never fell asleep in class until I lost my home.

I felt awful because I was a very good student. Good students don’t fall asleep in class. It’s disrespectful to the teacher. But my brain had other plans. It was sixth period – after two o’clock – and I was in Physiology Honors. Even the twang of my instructor’s plucky Kentucky accent couldn’t keep me alert. Fortunately, my desk partner noticed me crashing before the teacher did.

“Are you feeling okay?”

No one had asked me that before. That’s also when it clicked how unusual this was for me. I wasn’t “on my game” and that shook me up. I answered something along, “I’m fine.”

Of course, if I were a fabled little boy made of wood my nose would’ve grown three feet and sprouted a bird’s nest at the end. It was spring semester, my family had been at the shelter for about six weeks and I hadn’t adjusted to the setting. With AP exams on the horizon (I was taking four classes that qualified), I was staying up late to tackle the extra assignments and study. Sometimes I stood up until 3 AM finishing a paper. Of course, I didn’t have the luxury of sleeping just a little later like other high school students until even 7:30 or even skipping first period because lights were on at 6 AM sharp.  I was lucky to log in six to six and a half hours of sleep. Even luckier if those six hours were uninterrupted. Remember: shared dorm = hearing everyone’s kid or infant who woke up in the middle of the night. Going around groggy and half-awake became a regular state of being for me. I was not fine. And I wasn’t going tell anyone.

The consistent lack of sleep also spilled over into my senior year. My first period AP English Literature class in senior year was one of my favorite subjects. So was AP Psychology. My teachers were fantastic, the material was engaging…and none of it was impervious to my brain shutting down for even just a 30 second micro-nap. Checked out. Done.

Of course, without sufficient sleep, other areas of my mental performance struggled, too. I couldn’t always remember something I just read. My attention was shorter, too. I worked harder just to stay focused in class. This wasn’t too hard in my favorite subjects (history, English) where I stood awake by asking questions and debating with students or the teacher. This was excruciating in my weakest subjects: MATH.

I had taken AP Statistics in my junior year to avoid AP Calculus. Stats was supposed to be the easier of the two evils. Right. I probably should have cancelled the scores on my AP test (I got a 1 – the score that says, “Thanks for writing your name correctly”), but the counselors said to report everything. “It looks better for your college applications.” No, it doesn’t when you get the lowest score possible.

According to the Nationwide Children’s Hospital, if you are a teenager, you should be logging over 9 hours of sleep a night. Sleep is critical to the full cognitive and physical development of a young person, especially during puberty. Quick bio refresher: Puberty is that signal from your brain that tells your body it’s time to start “growing up,” so everything goes into overdrive. This is the period when you get growth spurts, become physically (albeit not exactly mentally) ready to make babies, go through major brain development, and get body hair in irritating places. What drives all this growth? SLEEP! Sleep and your teenage brain go hand-in-hand. It’s why doctors are pushing and some schools are taking action to start class later in the morning, so their students can keep hitting that snooze button.

If you’re a teenager and you don’t get enough sleep, you’re more likely to make awful decisions (see drug experimentation), have a bad short-term memory (which is GPA suicide), be prone to anxiety, depression, and other hits to your mental health, and generally not have proper physical development. So, you’re short and not doing so great in AP Stats. I have large feet so I was at one point probably destined to be taller. Maybe a towering five-foot-four. But I was a teenager in a homeless shelter. To borrow the acronym of my generation: LOL. I could be wide-awake to see myself never go to college or I could slog through the application process, attempt to keep up in classes, and volunteer after school and on weekends. I couldn’t have both.

Of course, sleeping on the streets is risky. One man interviewed by the Huffington Post stated, “Sleeping on the streets you have to watch other people. You have to be real careful of the weather and other people. You could get kicked in the head. Other people like to mess with the homeless.” Shelters don’t really offset sleep deprivation either. Adult intake centers are large, loud, and anything but conducive to an appropriate sleep setting. Quoted in The Atlantic, homeless blogger Kevin Barbieux writes:

“After a long period of processing and standing in lines… you’ll finally be assigned a bed. You’ll find this bed is located in a large warehouse type room with many other beds—more than likely they will be bunk beds, or army cots, (ever try to sleep on an army cot?) You will be in a room with anywhere from 25 to 150 other homeless people, and not all of them will be ready to go to sleep. They will be talking, laughing or yelling, getting into fights (verbal and physical) making noises, the mentally ill will be trying to wind down from their constant hallucinations.”

Sleeplessness in homeless shelters has been further researched. According to a 2011 study by House the Homeless in Austin Texas:

“The shelter sleepers who have responded to the survey reported having only a little over five hours of sleep per night. More than 90% said they needed more sleep, and 70% said that, at times, the lack of sufficient sleep left them so tired they felt unable to function normally during the day.”

We shouldn’t need an in-depth study to expound, “Sleep deprivation is dangerous to your mental and physical health and can dramatically lower your quality of life.” It’s a big, fat “duh” at this point. Imagine trying to sleep in these conditions and trying to wake up the next morning to go to school, work, or even just look for a job. Barbieux pointedly asks, “Suffering from a lack of sleep, just how is a homeless person supposed to do all the things necessary for overcoming their homelessness?” We already have no shortage of ills attached to sleep deprivation. Check out this excellent image:

In the long run, lack of sleep is like taking a wrecking ball to your health. You’re more at risk for heart disease, diabetes, obesity (check out the short-term: you’re more likely to load up on calories when you’re sleep deprived), and mental illness. Current studies are examining links between lack of sleep and poverty.

And in being poor, you’re preoccupied with the day-to-day. So, let’s take a closer look. In the short-term, lack of sleep means bad memory, bad mood, and bad decisions. Acting on impulse is more common when you’ve had significantly less sleep. Tragically, a lot of bad decisions are made on spur-of-the-moment decisions: car accidents, drug experimentation, acts of violence – the list goes on. As we can see on the diagram, you’re more likely to be emotional and “out of it” in general. You want to know why I or anyone else struggling with homelessness is short-tempered, absent-minded, anxious, or just plain “a little off”? It’s not always drugs, mental illness, or alcohol. It can be flat-out lack of sleep.

We also see that loss of sleep, just one night, can mean loss of brain tissue. That last one should scare you. Heck, it should make you really, really concerned for the young folks – teens and children – who are homeless that are losing out on sleep and, consequently, on developing a healthy set of neurons to get the education to get out of that situation.

It’s not fair. That’s why the whole “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” metaphor falls apart. It assumes everyone has bootstraps, everyone has a bed or a quiet and safe place to sleep. It assumes we all have our most fundamental needs met in order to succeed. We don’t. And the failure to see to the basic well-being of others in poverty and homelessness is making the whole thing one big sham. In terms of healthcare, sleep should be a fundamental human right. Because, right now, we’re crushing the opportunity for kids in homelessness to find their way out. After losing your home, why should the thing you lose next be your sleep?


3 thoughts on “Better Stay Healthy: Sleep and Homelessness

  1. raynaelizabeth says:

    Reblogged this on Death Unseen.


  2. Another great post! Thank you so much for telling this story! You should write out your complete testimony so we can distribute it to teenagers experiencing homelessness in our school systems. It will give them hope and help them not to feel alone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kristen! I’ve been thinking about what a compilation of all the blog posts would look like, but for now I’m just focused on finishing the blog (approximately 32 posts). My hopes would be that students in homelessness as well as their teachers and local policymakers would be the ones to read this. Thank you for your kind encouragement!


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