THE BLOG
10/07/2013 03:04 pm ET | Updated Dec 07, 2013

How Can You Sleep in a Parking Lot? That's Not a Rhetorical Question

You are standing alone, under a streetlight at the back of a silent parking lot. You figure the time to be around 4:00 a.m.; you don't own a watch anymore. You look around, listen in the darkness, in that very particular pre-dawn stillness. Everything seems quiet, so you creep behind a dumpster. You lie down, pulling the tarp you stash there over your legs, against the cold air. You put your backpack, which holds everything you own in the world, under your head, both as a pillow and as your attempt at guarding it against any would-be marauders.

You know you don't have anything to protect yourself against a marauder, particularly if you are asleep.

So do you close your eyes, if you live on the street? Can you ever truly let go, let your self be that vulnerable? Can you actually fall asleep?

Truly, how could you?

Call Up Your Memories of a Period of Exhaustion...

I haven't had many times in my life when I have been deeply sleep-deprived, but there have been a few. Certainly the first few months after the birth of each of my children were rugged; I also recall a few ill-conceived series of all-nighters in college. When I get tired -- that tired -- my nerves fray, my judgment falters, and my life-goals telescope down to getting through the coming half-hour.

But each time I endured such exhaustion, I knew it was finite. I knew if I could just muscle forward, a warm bed, in a home with a lock on the front door, were there for me. So I would grit my teeth and push through it. I'm guessing you, Reader, may have experienced something similar.

I thought a lot about our need for sleep -- and life without it -- last Thursday.

I had awoken that morning to a crisp autumnal bite in the air. It wasn't just cooler; as I watched a few golden leaves drift toward my lawn, I noticed that distinct scent of autumn. I imagined smoky fires, apple cider, pumpkins.... Taking in a deep lungful of air, I knocked out my morning tasks (children, dog, dishes) and headed to Bethesda Cares' Drop-In Center.

Our clients -- people living unsheltered -- had also noticed the change in weather. It meant something different to them.

As I walked through our offices, I saw a lanky African-American man in a blue sweatshirt and a black watch-cap give a kind of one-armed guy-hug to a heavyset white man, wearing a black coat with the collar turned up. "Hey, man," the first man said to the other, "it's getting cold out there." "I know it," replied the second, rubbing his hands together. "Could not sleep. Did you get any sleep?" They headed toward the coffee pot; I didn't hear the response.

...and Imagine that Exhaustion, with No End in Sight

I'm no sleep expert, but I certainly know that a chronic lack of sleep leads to severe physical and psychological harm. A simple Google search confirms what we all can pretty much guess: chronic exhaustion destroys the functioning of everything from cognitive to coronary. Heck, sleep deprivation is widely regarded as a deplorably effective interrogation and torture technique.

For our clients, chronic sleep deprivation is a part of their realities. I see it in their faces, I hear it in their comments. When I try to picture myself closing my eyes in a cold, dark parking lot, I see their truths.

I've posted about the medical risks of life on the streets without a toilet. Today, I'm asking you to imagine how it might look -- how it might feel -- to continually have to try to go to sleep in a public space. Tipping into chronic sleep deprivation wouldn't take long, I reckon.

Amnesty International describes sleep deprivation as "cruel, inhumane and degrading." Anyone care to tell me why our tolerating our citizens' living on the streets -- knowing they cannot be getting proper sleep, realizing what that means for their physical and mental health -- merits any kinder adjective?