Shaw: The value of sleep
The Sunnyvale homeless shelter is open year-round and serves up to 140 people. File photo.

How much value can you put on a restful night’s sleep? If you feel more tired today than yesterday, there are ways to remedy that. You can take a nap or go to sleep earlier to get your body to adjust itself. But what happens when this tiredness continues day after day? How do you get adequate rest when you have an unpredictable, inconsistent pattern of sleep?

Sleep is critical to my well-being. I need to be asleep by 10 p.m. in order to wake up by 4:30 a.m. Ideally, I would like to be asleep between 8:30-9 p.m., but that’s not realistic when sleeping in a vehicle or a shelter. I need complete darkness and silence to fully rest. I’m extremely grumpy if I don’t get enough sleep. Sometimes, when I am able to sleep in a bed, I can sleep all day—12-18 hours.

This is worrisome for my girlfriend because she fears it’s a sign of depression, which it probably is. I believe if you’re homeless, you are likely experiencing some level of depression and anxiety whether you think so or not.

Being homeless and sleeping on the streets, overpasses, parking lots or encampments is a much different experience than when you’re homeless and sleeping in a shelter—mostly for safety reasons. I have some level of safety in my vehicle and staying in the parking lot of my gym, which is open 24 hours. Others disagree, but I have a small sledgehammer and deterrents I sleep with to keep me protected. When you are homeless, if you don’t feel safe then sleep does not come easily, especially at night.

Many homeless individuals on the streets don’t feel safe and therefore are nocturnal. It’s easier to sleep during the day when everyone can see you rather than at night when no one can see you. Sometimes it’s just the inability to stay awake any longer that leads to some homeless people to fall asleep right on the street. Your body tells you when you need to sleep through exhaustion, and your mind tells you when you need to sleep through delirium.

Sleeping is the way my mind and body replenishes. I try to make it a priority so I’m not a danger to others when I work, and not (too) grumpy when I’m dealing with other people. But even though I can get several hours of sleep in my car, it is not a healthy slumber. It’s resting, but not rest. No matter how I contort myself into a semi-comfortable position, it’s still not the same feeling as sleeping in a bed.

The next time you see a homeless person passed out on the street, behaving erratically or talking to themselves, do not automatically assume that person is on drugs. They could be sleep deprived. This is why it is important to have access to permanent supportive, low income and very low income housing. Shelters and tiny homes not only provide some level of security, but also consistent time to sleep.

I know I am more fortunate than other people who are experiencing homelessness because I have options for when I’m tired of sleeping in my car. But it doesn’t negate the fact that I am still unable to afford permanent housing. This should be a consideration when deciding where to place resources for the unhoused.

Jerome Shaw is an unhoused advocate for the homeless and previously lived at a HomeFirst shelter in Sunnyvale. He’s part of a group of homeless columnists writing for San José Spotlight’s In Your Backyard column to shine a light on the homeless experience in Silicon Valley. Contact Jerome at [email protected]

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