Kamloops needs a homeless sleep centre

Kamloops agencies care for the spiritual and physical needs of our homeless: faith, food, warmth in the winter, air conditioning in the summer.

credit :SeanShot. Getty Images

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.

Normalizing the voices in our heads

Hearing voices is often regarded as a sign of mental illness. But maybe voices are just part of a spectrum.

image: The Atlantic

Professor T. M. Luhrmann says the idea of a continuum of voices is gaining recognition:

“This is the new axiom of the psychotic continuum theory: that voices are not the problem. The problem is the way people react to their voices.” says the professor of Anthropology at Stanford University (Harper’s magazine, June, 2018).

Luhrmann has been studying voices for decades and found people with intense experiences who aren’t psychotic.

One of them is Sarah, who was only four when a “spirit guide” appeared to her. When she told her mother of what she was seeing and hearing, her mother warned: “Cut it out. This is what they put people in psychiatric hospitals for.”

Sarah grew up otherwise normal, went to college and became a nurse. She began to see souls as they left the bodies of dying patients. They often gave her messages to give to people they’d left behind. While she could hear them, she realized that no one else did.

At sixty-two, Sarah is married and still working. One of her voices, “Tom,” is friendly. Other voices, “the council,” not so much but Tom helps mediate between the two.

“But Sarah is not psychotic,” says Luhrmann, “To use the language of psychiatric nosology [classification of diseases], she has no ‘functional impairment.’ She can work and care for herself and others; her marriage is good and stable. She has never been hospitalized.”

Sarah describes the council’s voices as if they are coming from a radio which would tune in and out.

My mother used to describe something like that: voices that that seemed to be coming from a radio; indistinct and sometimes with music. She would try turning off the radio only to find it was already off.

As an electronics teacher, people sometimes approach me with what I call the “radio phenomena.” They would wonder what the electronics were behind the indistinct voices they heard, seeming to come from a radio. While people can pick up strong radio signals as a result of metal oxides in tooth fillings, it’s rare and only works with strong AM signals. I was generally at a loss to explain the phenomena but it’s starting to make sense now.

Sarah has learned to live with her voices but others struggle. Schizophrenics have traditionally been prescribed antipsychotic medications with limited results.

One grassroots movement called Hearing Voices is offering an alternative approach to medication. They encourage those who are tormented with voices to address them. It’s difficult because the voices are frightening.

Luhrmann met one man at a Hearing Voices workshop. “His voices would yell at him for hours, cursing him, screaming that they should drag him out to the forest and leave him to die in the leaves.” He was encouraged to placate them. One of his voices was obsessed with Buddhism, so he agreed to read Buddhist texts and offer prayers during an allotted hour. Within a year, he had almost completely transitioned off medication.

Rather than treating voices as a disease, a better plan might be to treat them as part of rainbow of voices -some relatively benign, some requiring therapy.

“The central insight of these methods is that the way people respond to their voices can change the course of their lives,” says Luhrmann.