When Sleep Deprivation Compounds the Struggle of Being Unhoused

When Sleep Deprivation Compounds the Struggle of Being Unhoused

Lori Yearwood hadn’t thought much about sleep—until she found herself homeless, and unable to catch a wink.


Lori Yearwood had never thought much about sleep, until she found it almost impossible to catch a wink. After a series of tragedies in her life, including losing her home in a fire, Lori was suddenly catapulted into homelessness. The shelters Lori found herself in were a nightmare, and the streets were hardly better—for two years, Lori struggled to get through each day without ever getting a full night’s sleep. The trauma of homelessness was compounded by the trauma of involuntary sleeplessness.

On this first episode of Going for Broke With Ray Suarez, the new podcast from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and The Nation, Lori talks about the soul-deadening effects of sleep deprivation, and the solutions she wants to see to make sure no one goes through the same experiences as her. That’s what Going for Broke is all about, hearing directly from the people who know about hardship the best: those who have lived through it. Each of the six episodes in this first season will give a platform to one person who has faced the prospect of losing their home, or their job, or their sense of meaning, and will offer lessons on how we make our society work for all of us.

Now that Lori is back on her feet, and finally able to get a good night’s sleep each night, she’s sharing the lessons she learned about homelessness through her reporting—she’s now the national reporter on the housing and crisis beat for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. In the second part of the episode, we’ll also hear from Dennis Culhane, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania, about how just providing adequate, humane shelter to people experiencing homelessness can be transformative.

To be the first to hear all the episodes in this season, subscribe to Going for Broke with Ray Suarez on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. New episodes premiere each Monday.

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Lori Yearwood: One day I was trying to sleep on a park bench in the early days of spring, and a lady walked up to me and she put a blue blanket on top of me. It was like a velour blanket, was beautiful. She asked before she put it on me, Is this OK if I give you a blanket? And I said, Yes. And then she tucked the blanket over my feet and around me, as if I was a child, and she said something like, You’re beautiful. So she dared to get close enough to someone who was homeless. And I remember feeling very deeply touched. I got to have that blanket for about a week. And I do remember getting a little bit more sleep because I wasn’t as cold. And it made a difference, because when I finally was able to walk away from the park bench for the last time, I knew I wasn’t facing a completely inhospitable world. I’ll never forget that.

Ray Suarez: From the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and The Nation, this is Going for Broke. I’m Ray Suarez. Each week we’ll bring you stories of people living through hard times, people who are documenting their own stories, and in the process offering up insights about what’s broken in America and how to fix it. On today’s episode, journalist Lori Yearwood takes us deep inside her two-year experience of homelessness and the sleeplessness that came with it.

Lori Yearwood: The very first night, I was in shock about being in a homeless shelter, in shock about being homeless. And so I wasn’t thinking what’s going to happen to me if I don’t get any sleep. The thought of sleep maybe came within a week. And then it started to dawn on me: I’m not getting any sleep, I need to sleep. And so that was when the yearning for a good night’s sleep started, and it didn’t stop for two years.

Ray Suarez: Lori was catapulted into homelessness after a series of tragedies in her life, including losing her home in a fire. She eventually fought her way out working an $11-an-hour job as a grocery clerk before reclaiming her journalism career. Lori is now the national reporter on the housing and crisis beat for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, the nonprofit organization behind this podcast. She brings a double expertise to her beat: 15 years as a reporter with publications like the Miami Herald and then her personal experience of having been homeless. The combination makes her uniquely qualified to bring a trauma-informed approach to her journalism. In a few minutes, she’s going to join me to talk about her reporting on sleeplessness among the unhoused. But first, she’s going to share some of her story.

Lori Yearwood: I’ll never forget my first night. I was put in an overcrowded shelter in one of their overflow rooms, which was down a long tiled hallway that was always lit with fluorescent lights within hearing distance of the front desk, and within a couple hundred feet of the main entrance. So every time the phone rang, or someone walked through, you would hear that. I was on a cot directly next to a woman whose face was bleeding profusely. And people from the front desk would come running over to her and dab her face with some medication. We were also maybe five feet away from the bathroom. So people would have to ask to get permission to use the bathroom. So every time they did that, I would hear that. And then on the opposite end of her, from my cot, was a person on, like, a gurney, and the person was morbidly obese, and I could see her buttocks, and she was farting really loudly. And that was really disturbing. So I was laying on my cot across from all that. And that was my very first night in the shelter.

Ray Suarez: Nothing about this place was conducive to sleep. The beds were metal trays with a thin mat on top. The commotion never stopped.

Lori Yearwood: The worst situation for sleep was downstairs in the overflow room, or in the laundry room on the tile floor, where you were given in either room a little thin yoga mat, and one blanket. Sometimes you get two blankets and that was an answer to prayer because then you got to maybe think that you could sleep, because when you’re cold, you get awakened.

Ray Suarez: Life in the shelter was regimented, lights out at 10 and back on again at six.

Lori Yearwood: And someone was yelling at you that it was time to get up. And you had however many minutes to get ready and get out of the building. I always dreaded when I was in the overflow parts, because if you’re in a hallway, or by somebody’s desk where the phone is ringing, you’re already really stressed and grumpy that you can’t sleep, and you know that you’re going to be out in the snow, or the rain at six. Walking the blocks until you can find something to eat when you can get food. Stresses me out just talking about it.

Ray Suarez: Once Lori got herself something to eat, her challenge shifted to finding a place to be. Where could she spend her day? Very much on purpose, very much by design, a person with no place to live is unwelcome.

Lori Yearwood: When you go to the library, which is where a lot of unhoused people go, the thought is, I want to sleep, but they have security guards constantly monitoring the situation, and sleep is not allowed. So if you look like you’re nodding off at your desk in the library, the security guard or police officer will awaken you. If you sleep, you get kicked out. And if it’s cold or hot, where do you go?

In my case, I wasn’t able to sleep outside because I was being stalked by someone who was intent on harming me. And so there was the situation of being around predators and always aware of who’s walking by, who’s going to steal my backpack, or my duffel bag, or the little bit that I have. Who’s going to take it? Who’s going to hurt me?

There’s a real misnomer that, well, at least you had a shelter. And it’s like, well, no, actually that was where I was targeted, that was where he stood outside the door to stalk me. That was where I didn’t get any sleep. So what happens in trauma, I learned in my reporting, is that the reptilian part of the brain takes over and only thinks about survival. It stops planning and just thinks, How do I get breakfast? Or how do I get out of harm’s way? How do I keep breathing? And that’s all you think about.

For me, as the trauma started to escalate, I started to withdraw inside myself more and more. I would say within a month of the homelessness, I didn’t talk except to say my Social Security number, or my name, or yes, please, and thank you. 

I did leave at one point the shelter, thinking, Well, it would be so much better if I could just sleep on a park bench, at least I would be in nature. I walked two and a half miles to where I felt safe. And I got really, really cold, for the cold would wake me up and jolt my body and I would cry. Aand because I was so cold—I only had the blanket that the shelter gave me—and so I learned really quickly that there wasn’t going to be sleep even though there weren’t lights and there weren’t people and there weren’t fights erupting, but now I was freezing to death.

Ray Suarez: And so it continued, in a terrible and terrifying pattern, Lori was constantly on the move, trying to eat, trying to sleep, trying to escape her abuser, trying to find a place to wash. At one point, she was arrested and jailed for bathing in a river.

Lori Yearwood: And there was no sleep in jail.

Ray Suarez: Looking back, she says she has no way of untangling the trauma from the sleeplessness.

Lori Yearwood: You really can’t just say, what was the role of sleeplessness and what was the role of trauma? Because they’re so intertwined. Sleeplessness is trauma. So finally after two years of escalating trauma, I just said, I need to do this another way, or I’m going to die. I was either going to be incarcerated again, or killed by the person who was stalking me. So I just walked away from the park bench and into a church that put me on the phone with the woman that eventually found me my first place out of homelessness. And then I began to sleep.

Ray Suarez: And Lori Yearwood joins me now. Lori, you getting a good night’s sleep these days?

Lori Yearwood: I am. Thank you. I sleep in a queen-size bed with a down duvet, and every night, I’m grateful for both.

Ray Suarez: Sounds terrific. I had basically a year where I got almost no sleep and I felt like I was coming apart at the seams. Did it take a while for you to be yourself again?

Lori Yearwood: Yeah. So it took five months, at least, before I started sleeping well, because that’s how long it took me to get truly secure housing.

Ray Suarez: What did you find out about the effects of sleep as you started to research how sleeplessness affects the unhoused?

Lori Yearwood: So the first thing that I learned was about trauma, which is a part of sleeplessness and what it does to the brain, which I think is really important. That the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex, all of those parts of the brain are impacted and don’t function as well, if at all, when you’re in trauma and sleeplessness. So what that looks like is your survival instincts are shunted. Your ability to focus is impaired. You can’t plan for the long term. Another thing that I found out was that sleeplessness induces psychosis, and it does that very quickly.

And so there’s an article that was really illuminating for me, that was published in 2018 by the US National Library of Medicine. And it said that psychosis is quickly revealed. So it starts within 24 to 48 hours. You have sleep loss followed by a complex temporal disorientation and hallucinations and disordered thinking. And by day five, you’re just into acute psychosis and toxic delirium. And the average stay in a homeless shelter is 60 days. So if that happens in three to five days, and you’re in a homeless shelter that was akin to mine, imagine what’s happening to your brain with sleeplessness and trauma. So that was very empowering to learn about.

Ray Suarez: When you say empowering, did you read those findings and say, aha, now parts of my own experience make sense to me?

Lori Yearwood: Empowering in that the way that people project onto homeless people a lot of blame for their situation. It’s your fault that you collapsed into homelessness. It’s your fault that you stayed there. What happened to you? What’s wrong with you? Why didn’t you climb out? Why didn’t you just pull yourself up by that proverbial bootstrap, get out? And so when you understand how trauma is affecting the brain and how sleeplessness is intertwined with all of that, it becomes a different way of looking at what happened and reframing it. And so that is empowering, because you’re no longer hating yourself, you’re understanding what happened.

Ray Suarez: As I’ve read your writing on this, as I listened to you tell your story, I was struck by the almost perversity of some of the ways we give people who have no place to live a place to be at night, because they seem almost designed to make everything worse. If we want you to get a job, produce income so you can pay for a place to live. If we desire people to find stability and coherence in their lives, the way these programs are designed, seem almost designed to make the opposite possible.

Lori Yearwood: Well, I think that people who collapse into homelessness are punished because the thought is you did something wrong and it’s your fault you’re here, and if we make it too comfortable for you, you’ll end up staying here and misusing the system. So it’s very analogous with the thinking of the Victorian ages, when there’s something wrong with your moral character as to why you’re poor. It’s not because your circumstances are affecting you. It’s because there’s something morally wrong with your character. So that way of thinking about the unhoused is definitely translated into their living quarters when they are going to a shelter. Absolutely.

Ray Suarez: Well, you do realize that what you’re saying is that the institutions that have taken on the job of helping unhoused people actually have a kind of contempt for them. That’s a pretty serious charge.

Lori Yearwood: So another really important fact to talk about when we talk about contempt of the unhoused and these stereotypes and their projections is the fact that 40 percent of homeless people in this country are Black, and they’re 13 percent of the population. And we can’t overlook that. It’s not a mistake. So when you have that racial component and we talk about punishment and keeping people entrapped in poverty, and turning a blind eye to the fact that they’re human beings, and they are Black and brown people, you cannot separate that.

Ray Suarez: No, I think that’s a critical insight. Well, Lori, this may get back to your suggestion that runs through everything we’ve been talking about, that people without a place to live are not regarded as actual human beings but just problem people who have to be managed somehow.

Lori Yearwood: Well, yes. And there is one result of that is death. The National Healthcare for the Homeless Council did a study in 2018 that showed the life expectancy of a unhoused person is 30 to 33 percent less than of a housed person.

Ray Suarez: That’s shocking, that the life expectancy of an unhoused person is only two-thirds that of a housed person.

I want to pause here. You’ll hear the rest of my conversation with Lori in a moment, but I want to bring in Dennis Culhane, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania. He is someone Lori has talked to extensively in her reporting, and he underscored a similar point.

Dennis Culhane: I think we all can appreciate that we have, as humans, basic body functions and needs that have to be addressed for survival and for health. And without that, including sleep, including access to basic hygiene, our life degrades. That’s what the definition of unhealthy is. It’s a degradation of your human experience and your life, your life expectancy. And that’s not what a society should be seeking to attain. We should be providing basic opportunities for people to meet their bodily functions and needs.

Ray Suarez: Could some of these problems be addressed through design, literally creating a different kind of physical environment for people who are temporarily, transitionally or permanently unhoused?

Dennis Culhane: Well, what was a very interesting outcome from the pandemic was that the CDC advised communities that they had to reduce density in the shelters to meet social distancing, and that people who were at high risk for complications for Covid, which is much of the homeless population, they encouraged people to go into what are called non-congregate shelter, which effectively turned out to be hotels and motels. And what that revealed was that this higher standard of shelter, having a private room and your own bathroom was transformative for many, many people. They had basic conditions that enabled them to engage in care planning for their own lives, getting rehoused, getting health care, continuity with case managers. And it completely turned around the approach that had been used for so many years. And I think has set a new standard for what we should be doing.

Ray Suarez: But if you look at the way we think about people who are in trouble, talk about people who are in trouble, we often start to channel our inner 17th-century Puritan scold. And I would count down three, two, one, before someone hearing what you just said saying, Well, gosh, if we give them all those things, they won’t try to stop being homeless.

Dennis Culhane: I can understand some people might think that, but the fact is that having that kind of basic accommodation would make it possible for people to get out of homelessness more quickly. You wouldn’t just have people staying in hotels. It would be part of a managed intervention that would intentionally focus on getting people rehoused within 60 or 90 days. And for most people who experience homelessness, I know most of us think about the visible long-term, chronic homelessness, but most people’s homelessness is relatively brief. And that kind of respite in a hotel or motel would be sufficient as a transition way back into the community. So we’re talking about actually using it as a platform to help people become more independent and get back on their feet.

Ray Suarez: Both Dennis Culhane and Lori Yearwood agree that creating shelters where people can actually sleep is critically important, but they’re both also careful to point out that better shelters aren’t the answer to solving homelessness.

Lori Yearwood: It’s a good start. But I think there are ones that could happen even before that. One man that I talked to, it was a great interview, Thomas Hubl, he wrote the book Healing Collective Trauma. One thing that Thomas Hubl taught me is that the reason we can walk over people laying in the sidewalk and go have our coffee lattes is because it’s too disturbing to acknowledge the level of trauma they’re in. Even looking at somebody laying in the sidewalk is hugely traumatizing. It’s horrible to think that person doesn’t have a place to sleep. Doesn’t have anything to eat. And they’re holding a sign in America, the wealthiest country in the world, that’s really disturbing, but until we can stop and breathe and go, wow, this is huge, we’re not going to help anybody.

We can put Band-Aids over this, we can make better beds and better shelters, and that’s important. But until we talk about the importance of trauma, we’re never going to pay the workers who help the unhoused. We’re never going to help them come out of homelessness in a way that’s actually healing. We’re not going to do any of it, because we’re just going to separate ourselves from others because we can’t even connect with ourselves. So I feel very adamant about that. The answer is not better shelters. I know the propensity is like, what’s the solution? I know that’s what everybody wants to do, but we have to stop and pause and breathe and be with the people and see them as human.

Ray Suarez: Lori Yearwood, great to have you with us. And thank you for being willing to tell this story and give people a more accurate idea of what the unhoused are going through.

Lori Yearwood: Thank you so much for having me. It’s really important work. And I’m grateful to be able to be in this position to have made it out and be able to shed that light. So thank you.

Ray Suarez: Lori Yearwood is a reporter for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. She interviews people who’ve been marginalized, including people who are homeless, others who’ve escaped homelessness, and people who continue to teeter on the brink of being unhoused. You can read her work at economichardship.org.

Going for Broke comes to you from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and The Nation. Our producer is Jeb Sharp, mixing and sound design by Tina Tobey Mack. Our executive producers are Alissa Quart and David Wallace. Frank Reynolds is multimedia editor at The Nation. The Nation’s editor is D.D. Guttenplan. I’m Ray Suarez. Thanks for listening. Please tell your friends about us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, or visit TheNation.com/podcasts to learn more. Sign up for EHRP’s news letter at economichardship.org.

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