Denver, CO

Sleep not allowed for Denver homeless

David Heitz
(Charl Folscher/Unsplash)

If you’re homeless and you live in Denver, chances are you’re exhausted right now.

Because in Denver, nobody ever lets the homeless people sleep.

It goes without saying that when you’re homeless, getting rest isn’t as easy as just going to bed. There is no bed.

There is no home. No roof. You’re outside or in a cramped, stinky shelter.

In Denver if you’re outside and you fall asleep in a park, even during park hours, the police can and will wake you up and ask you to move along. If you’re a little chilly in the park and cover yourself with a blanket, then police can cite you for violating the camping ordinance. That happened to me once.

I experienced homelessness in 2019 due to some very traumatic life events and untreated mental illness. The worst thing about being homeless besides stinky feet and nowhere to go to the bathroom is never being allowed to sleep.

I never “camped” during homelessness. I didn’t want a ticket.

Metal on metal clanks at Union Station

So, I usually walked around in circles. I walked in circles for a year while homeless, moving from one spot to the next. If I dared sit down, as I often would at Union Station, I’d be asleep in 90 seconds. RTD security would bang their keys on the metal bench where I sat. “You can’t sleep here,” went the mantra. “If you’re going to board a bus that’s fine but you can’t sleep here.”

Nights during homelessness are long. Sometimes you can’t even find a park bench to lie down on. In Denver, many of the park benches are divided into three seats so homeless people can’t lie down.
(Konstantine Trundayev/Unsplash)

Organizations that serve the homeless don’t allow you to sleep either. I remember going to a day shelter called Open Door. I usually felt safe at Open Door.

If you’re homeless and you’re lucky enough to be somewhere you feel safe for a few minutes, you’re likely to fall asleep. That happened to people a lot at Open Door.

Theft common at homeless shelters

And staff always would wake them up. The sleep deprivation homeless people experience severely impacts their mental health, decision-making, and safety. Would it really be that difficult to create a place where homeless people can catch a nap during the day?

The Gathering Place, a day shelter for women and transgender individuals, does have a nap room. That’s the only place I know of that does.

If you think you can sleep at an overnight homeless shelter, think again. Items at homeless shelters frequently get stolen, so you’re always sleeping with an eye open. I used to take my backpack and tie it to my legs, or I’d use it as a pillow.

Fights at homeless shelters are frequent. Screaming and yelling is common. Pack a bunch of traumatized, exhausted people with mental illness into a confined space and there’s bound to be some trouble.

Half report two hours of sleep or less

Homeless Out Loud, a group that advocates for people experiencing homelessness, talks about sleep deprivation on its website.

“Respondents who are frequently woken by police typically sleep only in short bursts: 49 percent report two hours or less of uninterrupted sleep,” Homeless Out Loud reports. “Poor sleeping habits, exacerbated by constant police interruption of sleep, leads to increased rates of depression, forgetfulness, sickness, anger, and hallucinations.”

In short, homeless people are afraid of the police. They can cite or ticket you for simply existing. A common response among homeless people is “Move on to where?”

Symptoms of sleep deprivation often mirror those of schizophrenia. This is problematic because schizophrenia already is prevalent in the homeless population. Symptoms of sleep deprivation can be doubly tough on people with mental illness.

Tucked away places often not safe

As “move on” orders push people experiencing homeless into nooks and crannies for hiding places, their safety becomes compromised, according to Homeless Out Loud. “Camping ban enforcement forces already vulnerable homeless people into less safe areas where they are more likely to be assaulted, robbed, and abused,” Homeless Out Loud reports.

Men and women who find more hidden sleeping locations report increased rates of robbery, physical violence, and sexual assault. Women in hiding spots report a 50 percent higher rate of robbery, a 60 percent higher rate of sexual assault, and more than three times the rate of physical assault.

“Denver police data show that the number of the number of crimes against homeless people — quite often physical assaults — increased for four straight years from 2013-2017, rising 42 percent over that period, to reach 1,008 crimes in 2017,” according to Homeless Out Loud.

Sleep is essential for the human body to function properly. When a marginalized group has nowhere to go for sleep, it’s abuse. They are being denied a basic human right that should be provided in a civilized society.

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best local newspapers in the country. Today, I report on Denver City Hall, homelessness and other topics for NewsBreak, much like I did in my twenties covering Newport Beach, Calif. for the Daily Pilot. I consider myself a lucky guy to still be doing what I love after so many years.

Denver, CO

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