You asked SHC… about sleeping rough

People have a right to sleep, even if it's on the street

“Sleeping rough” is a British reference to being homeless. People sleeping on the streets may make privileged people uncomfortable, but the reality is that homeless living puts them at much higher risk for a variety of problems that a simple and safe space for sleeping can deter.

What is sleeping rough?

Someone recently asked @sleepyheadctrl in Twitter what it meant to “sleep rough.”

sleeping rough sleep homeless park bench sleepyhead central

The Urban Dictionary defines it as a form of British slang for “spending the night sleeping on the street, as opposed to a shelter.”

This is a commonly used term in the UK. However, in the US, it’s more common to refer to people who sleep on the street more generally as homeless. The irony here? Homelessness in the US also describes the situation of someone who lives and sleeps in their car, RV, or tent.

Statistics on sleeping rough

People who sleep rough are:

How sleeping rough affects the homeless

Aside from these apparent dangers of sleeping rough, people who are caught in this predicament cannot perform ordinary kinds of self care that could improve their sleep health.

If they have poor overall health, sleeping rough practically guarantees it will degrade even further. Sleep fragmentation among these people could be caused by anxiety, lack of opportunity, extreme weather conditions, dislocation caused by disaster, an inability to practice good hygiene, and the added stress of “precariousness” of life on the street that interrupts their ability to fall asleep or stay asleep.

These stressors, not surprisingly, are likely prompts toward any future abuse of drugs and alcohol among these people.

Efforts to improve sleeping conditions for the homeless

Perhaps the bigger question is how to prevent homelessness in the first place. But the solution to this worldwide problem is complex and begs a sustainable solution.

The problem of law enforcement

Local police, agencies, and governments continue to create and enforce new ordinances and laws that discourage sleeping outside. Much of this effort is partly to crack down on panhandling, drug trafficking, and other street crime.

However, shelters are frequently at capacity, with no other option for these people. This creates an environment in which the homeless are criminalized for being homeless.

What’s happening in the UK and the US

A recent study published by shares data showing an uptick in rough sleeping among the homeless in England and Wales. With that increase comes another one: more arrests, fines or imprisonment for simply being homeless.

In the US, the situation is no better.  According to a 2014 article in The Atlantic, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) estimated that “of 234 American cities, 40 percent make it a crime to sleep in public spaces.

In parts of the UK, has called upon local authorities to “work together to provide rough sleepers with advice, accommodation and referrals to other services. If formal enforcement measures are used they must always include accommodation and social care support.” In other words, laws meant to prevent panhandling (as one example) should be enforced only when local agencies adequate shelter space for those sleeping rough.

One model being tested in England to address sleeping rough is the No Second Night Out (NSNO) campaign. The longer someone sleeps rough, the higher their risk for:

  • living permanently on the streets
  • becoming a victim of crime
  • developing drug or alcohol problems, or
  • experiencing significant health problems

The NSNO effort provides a local rapid response with sleeping accommodations for first-time “rough sleepers,” This can translate into better outcomes for them in the long term.

In the US, the creation of “tent cities,” tiny home “hamlets” like Dignity Village, and parking lots dedicated to the homeless who may have a vehicle (in San Diego, most recently), might help curb some of these issues with limited shelter space.

Remember, the homeless are human beings and citizens

Homeless people (which includes both adults and children) are human beings. They need sleep in order to live, just as much as they need food and exercise to thrive.

Democratic governments, from the hilltop to the grassroots, are ideologically obliged to assist the less fortunate when they no longer have access to food or basic health care. But what about safe sleeping quarters?

Enlightened agencies must include the right to sleep as one of their key social obligations. Only those most lacking in compassion would disagree that the right to sleep is both a human right and a civil right.

In fact, the US Department of Justice clarified this matter in 2015 when it wrote in this statement of interest:

“When adequate shelter space exists, individuals have a choice about whether or not to sleep in public. However, when adequate shelter space does not exist, there is no meaningful distinction between the status of being homeless and the conduct of sleeping in public. Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity — i.e., it must occur at some time in some place. If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”

Learn more about sleeping rough from this extensive UK-focused website at, or by visiting the website for The National Coalition for the Homeless, Dignity Village or Stand Up For Kids (youth homelessness in the US).

~ The Curator

About Tamara Kaye Sellman (621 Articles)

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