Sleep-Shaming the Homeless

Image © 2011 by Patrick G. Ryan

There’s nothing good about being homeless, not one solitary thing, though I’ve run into more than a few people who claim they’ve been living on the streets between ten and forty years and they wear it like a bizarre badge of pride. If, however, you cannot avoid being without a home, New York isn’t the worst place to be for the simple fact you will never go hungry unless that is your aim. You can’t swing a dead cat in the city so nice they named it twice without hitting a soup kitchen. Plenty of places to throw some food down your gullet. Not always the tastiest morsels but enough to help you survive another day. Sleep, however, is a whole other kettle of fish.

If you are unable to secure a place to sleep in the overcrowded shelter system or a three-quarter house and you make your bed on the street, you quickly learn just how important a good night’s rest is and just how little of that you actually get. Veterans of the lifestyle have secured their hidey-holes and guard the location like it’s gold, others will lay out cardboard mattresses wherever they please, in doorways of closed businesses, on church steps, park benches, subway lines or even in the center of the sidewalk. But no matter how much sleep you manage to eke out at night, during the day, your body will crave the sleep it needs and it will eventually shut you down.

While there are some working homeless, a vast majority are unemployed, on benefits, disability, or supplemental security income and have to find places to spend their time in order to kill the day. No matter how strong-willed you are or how desperately you try to stay awake, eventually you will sit down somewhere and nod out, which is a big no-no in the Big Apple.

This needs to change.

Instead of having overzealous security guards make a public scene out of waking a person who closed their eyes for a moment, there should be places for people to grab a quick nap. I understand that most of the older security guards used to be in law enforcement in one aspect or another and intimidation tactics are part of their arsenal but is closing your eyes in a public place that severe a crime that a person should be forced to wear a scarlet letter?

Why must these mini-dictators get such a thrill out of sleep-shaming the homeless?

Don’t they understand the effects a lack of sleep has on the human psyche? And how that lack might affect the way they behave towards authority, the public at large, or even fellow homeless persons? Does no one understand that sometimes letting a person grab a power nap can make all the difference in how they cope with society and the day?

I know this is child’s logic. There’s no simple solution to sleep-shaming and the bigger issue is that of homelessness. I think it’s time for the thought process to turn from simply getting the homeless off the streets which means pushing the homeless from one neighborhood to another (that’s right upper east side I’m looking at you) or worst yet, processing people through Bellevue, which is almost as bad as being sent to prison due to a lack of health and safety. The adjusted goal should be to provide employment opportunities and safe, affordable housing to those who haven’t given up, who want to rejoin society as productive members, even if it requires services rendered to be bartered for room and board.


In the meantime, should you come across me sitting peacefully with my eyes closed, please give me a few moments rest before you disturb my peace. And by all means, try to be respectful should you need to wake me.

I may be homeless, but I’m still human. I still matter.

My Humanity Falls Piece By Piece


Recently I was asked to write a testimonial for one of the soup kitchens I frequent and because today has been one of those tough days when I just keep rubbing up against the wrong people though I do my best to avoid them, I figured I’d post it here for easy access when I’m online seeking a distraction from the realities of the day.

Through a series of unfortunate events, I became homeless in the back half of 2012. No relatives or friends to use as a temporary support system, I hit the streets of Manhattan without a clue as to where to go, what to do, or what life held in store for me. I struggled for months to survive, spending what little pocket money I had on dollar pizzas, a slice of which I ate every other day in order to stretch out my dwindling funds.

Then one day while I was waiting in the cold for the public library to open, I met two women, sisters, who turned out were homeless like me. They were kind enough to take me to a few locations where I could get some food, which came at a most opportune time as I was down to my last dollar, and that’s no exaggeration. One of the first places they brought me to was a special soup kitchen that changed my entire experience.

Different from other soup kitchens (please understand that the words soup kitchen and ministry are interchangeable here, just as the homeless are referred to as guests), this particular ministry is a great place for guests to start the day. Both the in-house staff and volunteers who help prepare coffee and serve hot meals to the guests are both polite and friendly, which may seem like a given, but it is really a precious and special thing considering most of them make the effort to wake up that extra bit earlier and make themselves available to serve guests of varying temperament before going about their workaday worlds, when most of us find it hard enough just to simply get up and deal with the daily grind.

On my darkest days, when the world doesn’t make sense and I can’t quite seem to catch a glint of the light at the end of this expansive tunnel I’m traveling through, it’s a great comfort for me to have a place where I can be, even for a short while, where I can almost feel human again. That’s the thing people rarely consider when they think about or discuss homelessness. Not being considered a productive part of society, being ignored, avoided, shunned and ridiculed… it chips away at the soul. Bit by bit, by living on the streets, even the strongest person will start to lose confidence, humanity, and even sanity. In my experience, this ministry has helped me hold on to these vital bits of myself, while clinging on to hope as well.

I realize I probably should be pointing out specific instances but truth to tell there are so many, you’d be reading this testimonial for days. Suffice it to say, I have always been greeted with kindness and positive attitudes, even when my attitude was less than civil, and wound up meeting a lot of kind and caring people, some of whom I actually consider friends.

And not to sound unappreciative of other soup kitchens, but the several I have attended cannot hold a candle to this ministry. Compared to some of the larger soup kitchens, this one tiny building is filled with more people who make a concerted effort to help guests out with more than just the serving of a meal. People who place a great deal of importance into what they serve to guests, be it a meal, the Word, or just plain fellowship. I can’t imagine what my experience out here on the streets would be like after all this time without their existence and shamefully, I don’t think I have ever conveyed to them just how much I appreciate what they have done and continue to do for me.

Perhaps this will help them understand.

As I mentioned earlier, today has been one of those chip away days. It seems I’m surrounded by people with either anger or mental health issues and they’re all looking to pay that pain forward.

When you inhabit the same public spaces as other homeless people, a bizarre thing begins to happen. Even if you keep yourself to yourself, you will acquire enemies. You may not even know their names or faces. Grievances will be plucked from thin air and thrust upon you. You will be challenged daily. Yours must be the cooler head. The one gifted with enough foresight to see the consequences and choose the best course of action for your continued safety and freedom.

It is far from an easy thing to do.

At night, when you finally find a spot to rest, you replay the accounts of the day, wondering just how much of your humanity you’ve lost in each one of these abrasive encounters? How much of you will be left when there’s nothing left to give?

I can only pray tomorrow will be a slightly easier day.