Kamloops agencies care for the spiritual and physical needs of our homeless: faith, food, warmth in the winter, air conditioning in the summer.
However, there is no place to get a decent sleep.
Accommodating the sleep needs of the homeless is often regarded as a “nice to have” feature. But sleeplessness can reduce the immune system, put people at greater risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease, stroke, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
The homeless are disproportionately affected. Almost one half suffer from insomnia.
Sleeplessness affects more than the physical health of the homeless. They already suffer from anxiety because of their precarious lifestyle. Mental illness further compounds anxiety. Sleeplessness adds to that.
Insufficient sleep impairs the mind, hampering decision making, memory, and mood. A recent study found that adults who stayed awake for just one twenty-four-hour period had an anxiety response 30 percent stronger than others who were allowed to sleep (Walrus, December, 2019).
Shelter staff and volunteers experience first-hand the frustration and aggression of the homeless resulting from exhaustion. Shelters are not designed to provide long, flexible hours of sleep.
Sleeping on park benches, doorways, and bus shelters is frowned on. Municipalities install “hostile” architectural elements, such as tilted benches and street spikes, which are intentionally designed to prevent people from lying down.
Social stigma and aggression from passersby can worsen the situation for anyone trying to find rest in a bus shelter or on a park bench.
I find public sleeping disturbing, except in certain circumstances such as at the beach or on a blanket in a park where a picnic is obvious. When I see someone sleeping on a sidewalk, I have mixed feelings of sympathy and offense at the encounter of an unconscious body.
Social norms determine when, where, and with whom people should sleep. Those norms are spelled out in shelter rules, loitering regulations, and policing practice. That leaves street people socially ostracized.
Street people often self-medicate with alcohol and drugs to get some sleep. But alcohol and drugs operate in a negative feedback loop. They provide the illusion of inducing rest but actually disturb sleep, leaving people more tired, more likely to feel pain, and more inclined to self-medicate.
Restaurants have varying policies regarding sleeping. The ones that I go to on the (North) Shore allow sleeping. I won’t name them because I don’t want to infer official policy. I often see a transient young person with their head down on the table, asleep. Somehow, I feel more protective of young people so obviously sleep deprived –perhaps for the same reason I feel protective of children or because I, too, have hitchhiked globally and experienced “rough sleeping,” as the Brits put it.
A good sleep for the homeless is not a trivial problem. The median cost of each homeless person to Canadian society is $55,000 per year and half of that goes to health care, more to policing and social services. In Kamloops, that amounts to $10 million for the approximate 180 homeless people here.
A good night’s sleep for the homeless would cut health and policing costs, reduce the wear-and-tear on shelter staff and volunteers, remove disturbing bodies from our streets and give the homeless what we all wish for ourselves –peaceful slumber.