Where to sleep when you have no home?


Sleeping is not easy for everyone. The question of sleep and rest obviously arises in a glaring way when we are interested in the homeless people who populate our city centers. This is all the more true for homeless people who do not have access to accommodation centers. To understand the options they prefer to spend the night, and the underlying logic of survival, we must start from the experience and point of view of the homeless themselves.

Several criteria preside over the constrained choices they make to accommodate moments of rest. Temporarily suitable places are assessed with regard to their material comfort (shelter, heating, sanitation, furniture, etc.), the security they provide (visibility or invisibility of the places of election, possibility or not of limiting access to them, need to protect oneself from attacks, possibility of sleeping in group to protect each other mutually…) or even the intimacy they allow (solitude, calm or promiscuity and noise). They also differ according to the freedom they grant or restrict (opening and closing hours, internal regulations or not, more or less strong control of illegalities).

These factors lead the homeless to opt for various solutions in order to spend the night and rest as best they can. These options range from soliciting emergency shelters (via the 115 shelter for the night in particular) to the installation of tents in the public space, through the appropriation of plots of underground car parks, the opening of squats, the invitation to third parties or the occupation of urban interstices such as forecourts, sheltered porches or under bridges.

Each of these ephemeral solutions offers advantages and disadvantages with regard to the above-mentioned criteria. Some homeless people prefer to sleep during the day in order to protect themselves from potential attacks that they are afraid of undergoing during the night. They then spend the night walking around the city and dozing in day, in the public space, relatively protected by the presence of passers-by.

Advantages and disadvantages of resting places

Emergency accommodation generally offers standardized and secure material conditions (room, bed, heating, access to water and toilets, possibility of locking the door, etc.). They nevertheless impose a collectivity which is not not always desired and a threatening promiscuity exposing people to theft, aggression and symbolic defilement (traces of blood, urine, waste injection equipment, etc.). What is more, these established places of assistance report operating rules often perceived as restrictive by the homeless (impossibility of inviting acquaintances there, prohibition of consuming alcohol and drugs, opening hours and closure imposed on "users", etc.). This limits the appropriation of places, to such an extent that some prefer not to resort.

The solution that seems the most envied is that of sleeping with a third party (a friend, a member of the family) offering hospitality more or less permanently. Optimal conditions of comfort, security, privacy and freedom are generally met there, without imposing institutional constraints. However, cohabitation often raises difficulties that can put an end to the solidarity provided.

Although it is illegal, the possibility of accessing a squatting – let us mean a vacant place illegally inhabited, whether it is an apartment, a disused public building or a garage – constitutes an option which has several interesting characteristics.

It offers the possibility of settling there in a group and without behavioral constraints while benefiting from a certain material comfort (closed and sheltered rooms, furniture, possible access to water and electricity, etc.). This obviously favors the appropriation of places.

Documentary “Thus squatting” by Marie Maffre.

However, sleeping in a collective squat exposes you to impromptu visits, thus limiting privacy and the feeling of security, not to mention the possibility of being evicted by the police or other threatening squatters. However, certain skills are required to open squats and stay there.

The privacy dilemma

Like tents and underground car parks, other options are used by homeless people to sleep: they give the possibility of recreating a " at home " rudimentary individually or collectively defended. If they prove to be limited in terms of the material comfort they provide (poor protection against bad weather, lack of furniture, lack of access to water and toilets, etc.), these solutions nevertheless make it possible to arrange spaces of privacy and freedom where to invite friends and consume alcohol and/or drugs without hindrance. On the other hand, because they are part of reclusive spaces hidden from the sight of passers-by, these options also arouse insecurity by exposing them to possible attacks against which it is better to protect themselves (by the presence of dogs, mutual protection of the group, having a knife at hand, etc.).

Losing privacy to gain security.
Jeanne Manjoulet/Flickr

In addition, some homeless people take up residence in nooks of public space, on the street, where they sleep in plain sight, most often in a simple sleeping bag. Although they then seem exposed to the gaze and questioning of passers-by, it is precisely this loss of intimacy and comfort that ensures their safety, insofar as video surveillance cameras and the proximity of city dwellers deter potential aggressors.

Finally, by studying their viewpoints and experience of survival from a ethnographic approach, we note that the homeless have multiple options for finding places to sleep, although each of them attests to aspects (material, legal, social, etc.) that remind us of their precariousness. Choices are then made with regard to dialectics that articulate visibility and invisibility, freedom and constraints, security and intimacy differently.

Finally, the places occupied by the homeless face competition and are subject to the vagaries of precariousness. Generally, over the course of their experience of survival, the homeless are led to successively mobilize different options for sleeping, rather than favoring a single one. Their nights are therefore always likely to be tormented.

Thibaut Besozzi, Doctor of Sociology, LIR3S, University of Burgundy - UBFC

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock/Srdjan Randjelovic

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