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Sleep Deprivation: A Silent Crisis

Sleep deprivation is a chronic condition with dire consequences for houseless citizens of Edmonton. Many people struggle with lack of sleep, but it is particularly difficult for those who are without a home.

Sleep is a basic human need, much like food and water. Lack of sleep is considered a contributing factor in many health and mental health conditions including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, weakened immunity, issues with balance and memory, mood swings, and difficulty with thinking and concentration. People may develop hallucinations, impulsive behavior, anxiety, depression, paranoia, and suicidal thoughts.

Normal slumber is one that includes uninterrupted sleep for several hours (7-9) that is comprised of 3 distinct stages and REM (rapid eye movement), which is present when you dream.

Achieving all stages of sleep is necessary for all humans, but people who are unhoused struggle to sleep.

A person sleeps on the street
Photo by <a href="">Jon Tyson</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>

The Elusive Sleep Cycle

One of our community members shared his lack of ability to have restful sleep - he estimated that he would get 6 hours of sleep every 3 days. He ends up taking short power naps to get the energy to carry on and he usually gets his best sleep in the LRT stations or on the trains. In shelter settings, where many people are in the same room, there is often noise, yelling, fights, and sickness. As a result, he feels it's better sleeping where he is away from people. He added that in the shelters, you also get separated from your partner, which is distressing. And occasionally, there is someone with whom he has had a negative history with – staff or community member - that makes rest impossible. The evidence shows that for mainstream populations, lack of sleep contributes to weight gain. However, this gentleman also stated that he feels like he has lost weight due to lack of sleep. He burns many calories by continually walking, but also said that when he stops to have a meal, he will often fall asleep during the mealtime and then loses his food when staff or other community members take it away.

For those in encampments and those sleeping out in the open, there is the constant worry that someone will take your stuff.

People sleep “with one eye open” to keep their belongings safe. These are catnaps, really, rather than the deep restful sleep that humans need.

In parks, the LRT system and other public spaces, it is common to be awakened and moved regularly by authorities, however “there are a few nice transit cops that will let me sleep for a few hours in the middle of the night.” For women, there is the constant worry about sexual assaults, making rest difficult.


Many people will self-medicate. Sometimes it is with stimulants, because the person feels they need to stay awake all night to protect themselves, their partners and their belongings. Others may use opioids and other substances to manage the sleep deprivation. Many times, drugs like opioids will chemically block the person’s ability to achieve the proper stages of sleep including REM, worsening the sleep deficit.

The impacts of sleep deprivation on people are severe, and those without homes have critical sleep deficits. It can impact upon how people interact with other individuals, the authorities, and their environment. It is one more reason why long-term housing is a critical need in Edmonton.


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