The first time I heard the phrase, it made me cringe. I don’t know why, but the semantics of it immediately made me defensive. I don’t know if it is because it feels as if someone has a choice- as in, “tonight, I think I will sleep rough” when in fact, I know that those who are sleeping in conditions not meant for human habitation are not, in fact choosing to “sleep rough”. I wonder if a better term would be survival sleeping. It is the sleep that is snatched when one can find a safe place, out of the elements, away from traffic (foot and vehicle), unseen. Not necessarily comfortable, but a place to grab enough hours of sleep strung together to survive. Survival sleep is not restorative, because the senses never have the time to truly refresh- they remain on wary alert. But it is enough to keep the body propelling forward, enough to make it through the next day, enough to survive.
Survival sleep happens on park benches, in church doorways, tucked up under bridge decks, and scattered along the river in campsites. It happens in hastily made beds of cardboard and tattered blankets. In tents pitched precariously among the bushes. In sleeping bags that smell of mildew from never quite drying out. Sometimes it is sleep aided by a night of binge drinking- promising deep sleep because one is passed out.
When I worked at a downtown church, we would often find people tucked into dark quiet corners of the church, or laid out on the back pew, sound asleep. It usually caused us to panic a little- surprised by stumbling upon someone in a dark closet or a quiet sanctuary. We were quick to call in back up and prepare for the worst. But now I know so much more about survival sleep and I wish, instead of boldly waking someone from sleep, I would have covered them with a blanket and let them rest. Knowing that for a few hours they would be safe, they would be warm, they could maybe catch more than a few minutes of survival sleep.
In the shelter, people often fall into two categories- those who tell us they have never slept better after their first night in a shelter bed and those that restlessly walk the halls during the night, unable to embrace a bed and pillows and warm blankets because they bare deep scars of survival sleep. It often takes them several weeks to settle into truly restorative sleep- if at all.
And so I offer this blessing for those who ‘sleep rough’.
The prophet Elijah- wandering in the desert
Fashioned himself a bed- with a rock for a pillow
And in the course of the night, he was visited by angels and visions of things to come
For those who find their only pillow a rock or the hard concrete
May God bless you with dreams of life as God’s Beloved child
When the task of staying awake dredges on day after day
May you find those along your path that will cover you with a blanket
Rather than boldly nudge you to move on your way
When survival sleep becomes all you know because there seem to be no other options,
May the God of abundance and safety grant you a safe place to tuck away, if even for a day
Finding the kind of restorative sleep your body longs for.
And may all of us who know a safe, dry bed with pillows and blankets and peace,
Seek those whose sleep is shaped by survival and create spaces for the sabbath rest that all God’s children are promised.