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Episode 3: Sleeping In Cars

As a teen, Kameron struggled to sleep while living in his car. His story of sleep inequity is all too common. 

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What would you do if you had no place to sleep tonight? That’s the question Kameron faced every day for two years. As a young college student, he lived out of his car, struggling to get enough rest to function - to stay in class, to find a job, to keep friendships. Kameron’s experience represents some of the struggles too many people face: housing insecurity, safety, and a lack of sleep. Our sleep expert Dr. Shelby Harris joins Kate Berlant to talk about how these sleep struggles play out as an alternative in our country, as more people than ever are forced to live in their vehicles.

Learn more and submit your own sleep questions at www.vox.com/areyousleeping

And, let us know what you think of the show at www.vox.com/survey

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Read Episode 3 Full Transcript Below

Photo credit: Sela Shiloni

KATE [VO]: I’m Kate Berlant. I’m an actor, comic, and writer, and I’m the host of “Are You Sleeping?”, a podcast about sleep from the sleep experts at Mattress Firm and Vox Creative.

[MUX IN: THEME MUSIC]

Home is so important to me. It’s where I find comfort, and a place to shut out the world and rest. It’s where I feel protected and where I can recharge myself. But not everyone has that. And for some people, there is no safe, reliable place to lay their head every night. No place to feel secure. Because for far too many people, the only place to find sleep is in their car.

KAMERON: It’s a big, big, uh, shopping complex. I’m about, I’m directly facing a Kohl’s, that’s like, about, I don’t know, 500 feet away, uh, to the left of me is a Shell and a Carl’s Jr., and Rayley’s, and that Rayley’s is where I went basically every day after high school, you know, buy one dollar Arizona iced tea and hang out with my friends. Yeah, and then about one year later, I started sleeping here.

KATE [VO]: That’s Kameron Schmid. And for two years in his late teens, Kameron had no home. So he lived in his car. Recently, he revisited some of the places where he used to park at night.

KAMERON: Normally, I would only come over here truly when I had nowhere else to go. So, libraries closed. Barnes and Noble is closed, you know, nowhere to loiter and read and stuff. It’s weird to be back.

Kameron Schmid

KATE [VO]: Parking lots like this one are where he slept and ate. It’s where he kept all of his clothing and books. And for Kameron, his entire life revolved around survival. Finding enough to eat, a place to shower, and every single night, a safe place to park his car, so he could try to sleep.

KAMERON: You know, you don’t really get privacy, in any sense of the word, even when you want to do things like, you know, go to the bathroom, brush your teeth, you know, freshen up if you can.

KATE [VO]: Kameron grew up in Sacramento, California, with his mom. In high school, he was in the drama club and he was into anime. And he loved hanging out with friends.

But at home, there was never much money. Kameron says they scraped by on child support and his mom’s disability payments to cover the rent. But everything changed on his eighteenth birthday.

KAMERON: And as soon as I turned 18 and graduated high school, child support ended and her disability payments got cut in half cause she was no longer the legal guardian of a minor. So, basically our income got cut into one third. And that was just kind of a death sentence as far as us all being able to afford living together in a house.

KATE [VO]: At first, Kameron and his mom spent their savings living in a motel. His mom’s disability prevented her from working, so Kameron desperately tried to find a job in a fast food restaurant. And they applied for affordable housing.

Then, the money ran out. And Kameron and his mom moved into her car.

KAMERON: Sleeping in a car, like, all the time, it’s not comfortable, no.

[MUX IN: LIGHT PIANO NOTES]

KAMERON: Every part of your, you know, uh, psychic, feels raw. And you’re kind of just not, you never feel comfortable. You never feel relaxed.

It’s kind of just, you know, you have to basically be exhausted enough to fall asleep or you kind of can’t.

KATE [VO]: Now, maybe you’ve never experienced housing insecurity firsthand. It might be difficult to imagine just how hard life is if you don’t have a place to sleep. But Kameron is not alone.

Before the pandemic, nearly one in 500 people lived in their car in this country. And families make up 30 percent of the unhoused population. That’s moms and dads holding down jobs, and sending their kids to school. People in our own communities.

On a single night in January of 2020, more than 34,000 young people had no place to sleep — that’s according to a federal report. They were totally on their own, with no parent or adult looking out for them. And experts say this housing crisis has only gotten worse.

KAMERON: It’s hard to realize how different of a person I was when I was homeless and when I wasn’t sleeping right.

KATE [VO]: Kameron’s story of exhaustion is a reality for so many in this country. And our society seems to realize just how important sleep is. There are federal rules that regulate just how much rest airline pilots and truckers have to get. Some parts of the country have even shifted school start times to better align with sleep.

So, if we recognize just how vital sleep is to our health and safety, why does society let others fall through the cracks — living on far less sleep than they need?

[MUX: FADE OUT]

KATE [VO]: Recently, Kameron agreed to meet me on a video call. He’s 29 now and works at a TV station in Sacramento, writing news and sports stories. And he’s got an apartment that he shares with a roommate and Hector, the cat, who launches himself into Kameron’s lap while we’re talking.

KAMERON: Hi, Kate.

KATE: Nice to meet you.

KAMERON: Nice to meet you.

KATE: Oh, you have a kitty.

KAMERON: I don’t know if you heard him [Hector meows]. Hi Hector, okay, shh shh shh.

KATE: Aww.

KATE [VO]: Kameron is soft spoken, with dark hair and an easy smile. He loves books, music, and improv comedy.

And I asked him to tell me about one of the hardest times in his life. It’s not easy to open yourself up like that. But Kameron wanted to talk about what he’s been through, because his story is playing out all over the United States.

Families living paycheck to paycheck, or relying on aid that doesn’t quite cover rent and food and all the other bills. And like more than half of Americans, Kameron and his mom didn’t have a safety net.

KAMERON: Kind of just everybody was struggling financially that we knew, so, nobody could really take us in.

KATE: Do you remember that first instance where you were forced to sleep in your car? What was that like that, that first night?

KAMERON: Yeah, that first night, um, I mean, to put it a little bluntly, just kind of sucked.

It’s weird. It’s scary. I slept in the back seat, my mom slept in the driver-side seat.

KATE: You just said it, of course, bluntly like, it sucks. I mean, like the feelings that you must have been going through and having to share that space with your mom. I mean, what was your, your day/life like at that point or your mental health?

KAMERON: Yeah, it was tough. Um, you know, when you’re not getting actual rest and you’re physically uncomfortable pretty often because you don’t have regular access to showers. We washed our clothes as often as we could, but if you’re wearing them while you’re not, you know, bathed, that adds up, you know, it’s hard to deal with and as far as mental health, for sure. You know, I’m not, uh, a naturally angry person. Anger doesn’t really come to me very often, but even now, when I do get angry about something, it kind of immediately associates me back to that time because I do remember just kind of like constantly being angry. I wasn’t, you know, shouting at people or, you know, doing anything destructive. I was just, like, full of rage, kind of.

KATE: Of course.

KAMERON: I was just so annoyed and upset and embarrassed that that’s kind of what my life had come to.

KATE [VO]: Kameron and his mom had a routine. They’d find a neighborhood and park the car for the night, and eventually a private security guard would knock on their window and tell them to move. So they’d find another neighborhood.

[MUX IN: CAR DRIVING/PARKING NOISES]

KATE [VO]: After about six months, it became too much. Kameron and his mom went their separate ways. The stress of living in her jeep wore on their already fragile relationship. But Kameron was used to looking out for himself. He’d done that since middle school.

On his own, Kameron kept looking for a job. And he enrolled in community college. He wanted to be a sports writer, or cover music. He couch surfed with friends. But they were young and struggling too. So before long, Kameron found himself living in a car, again.

[MUX IN: PIANO CHORDS]

KATE [VO]: This time, he was alone.

KAMERON: Yeah, that was a Nissan Sentra. So, you know, pretty small.

And because I was keeping all my stuff in it there was no room to sleep in the back seat and it was too, you know, it wasn’t wide enough anyway. So I slept in the driver’s seat, just put down.

KATE: Yeah, because I’m looking at you and you seem like a tall guy.

KAMERON: Yeah, I’m six feet, full.

KATE: So trying to lie down in a car and actually get any kind of quality rest seems nearly impossible.

KAMERON: Yeah, pretty much. Um, I spent a lot of time in bookstores and libraries.

I really tried to keep how much I use my gas down. So basically never had the car on, even if you know, I wanted to run the AC or something, and yeah, definitely never would go to sleep with the windows down just because you’re sleeping in public, so you don’t know what could possibly happen.

KATE: Yeah.

KAMERON: It’s really hot in Sacramento in the summer. You know, it’s triple digits, basically every day and it’s close to 110 on most days. So, you know it’s just hot. You’re kind of just roasting.

KATE: Wow.

KAMERON: I can like viscerally remember just my body, like never cooling down all night and just like taking off my socks and shoes and putting my feet up on the dashboard and just like watching them steam on the window, like all night.

KATE: God. Yeah.

KAMERON: Um, yeah, that was, like, physically probably the most miserable I had been.

KATE: And when it became really hot or really cold, I would imagine that obviously combined with hunger, just like trying to even fathom how you would get rest, I mean, were you able to even sleep for a full hour or …?

KAMERON: Yeah, I mean you, it’s interesting because like even if you could fall asleep for as long as you wanted, you’re in public. So you wake up kind of because of what’s going on around you.

You know, I’m sleeping in, like, a grocery store parking lot or next to, like, a Starbucks or something, and so in the morning, traffic picks up around there pretty quickly and the sun rises and every now and then someone gets cut off in a parking lot and honks.

[MUX IN: TRAFFIC SOUNDS, HONKING CARS]

KAMERON: You know, stuff just happens in a way that you can’t control because you’re, you know, you don’t have a private space.

[MUX IN: GENTLE PIANO KEYS]

KATE [VO]: All of the basic things I take for granted — a safe, cozy place to lay down to sleep, enough food in my fridge, a private bathroom — all the things that I don’t even think about are the things that Kameron spent all of his time trying to find.

We’ll have more with Kameron and our sleep expert in just a minute.

[MIDROLL]

KATE [VO]: Amazingly, through all of it, Kameron stayed in school studying journalism at community college. But it wasn’t easy. Living in his car, he had no place to do the usual things in the morning, like shower and cook breakfast. And he constantly worried that people would find out that he slept in his car.

KAMERON: I was terrified of it, and I lied to basically anyone I was around at that time.

I said I lived, you know, with a friend. But, ah, you know, and I think anybody who ever got in my car for like a ride knew or, you know, like gave me a hug and smelled me, you know, they knew.

KATE [VO]: Then one day he saw a flier for an improv class. So he signed up.

[MUX IN: LIGHT MUSICAL NOTES]

KAMERON: Somebody named Bryan started coming to the meetings and he lived in an apartment right across the street from our college campus. Um, and I think on like the third or fourth time I had ever met him or hung out with him, I was kind of lingering at his apartment a little bit longer than everyone else because like, I was just going to my car afterwards, so I kind of didn’t want to go.

KATE: Yeah.

KAMERON: Uh, and he was like, “Where do you live?” And I was just like, “Oh,” I told him the same lie that I’d been telling basically everybody. And he was like, “No, where do you live?” [laughs] and I just, like, started crying and I was like, “I live in my car.” And he was just like, “Okay, well, you’re going to start sleeping on my couch and you know, I’m going to help you find a job. And once you do find a job, you’ll start paying like a hundred bucks a month to sleep on the couch.”

And he kind of just immediately identified that I was going through something bad, uh, and randomly decided that he was going to help me fix it.

KATE: Wow. It’s like as soon as you were able to have shelter or these kind of like basic human needs, then like, you, very quickly, your situation changed.

KAMERON: It legitimately changed my life.

KATE [VO]: That one act of kindness — his friend offering him a place to sleep — that was everything to Kameron.

KAMERON: I think I passed maybe a handful of classes in my first full two years at community college, I was on academic probation and I was considering, like, not even going back because my financial aid was going to be withheld. I could very easily see how that roadblock would push someone away entirely from pursuing education, from pursuing better employment. You know, it made those decisions a lot harder.

KATE [VO]: Finally, Kameron had a reliable place to sleep, and to feel safe and secure. Pretty soon, his grades were up. He found a job selling concessions at a baseball stadium. And he was able to pay Bryan $100 a month to sleep on the couch. And when someone moved out of the apartment, Kameron moved into his own room.

Kameron says living in his car taught him a lot.

KAMERON: I genuinely look back on that time as good in terms of just, like, finding what I liked in the world in terms of books and um, music, and then it definitely gave me a perspective for any problems I go through now. I’m not as financially secure as I want to be. It took me a long time to actually finish a four-year degree because I kind of set myself back early on while I was homeless. Um, it’s all, uh, [laughs] good from here.

KATE: Yeah, wow. What do you wish that people knew about what it’s like to not have a safe place to sleep every night?

KAMERON: It’s really hard to state how big of an impact, not actually being rested, not actually being fed, not actually being clean. It’s really hard to make people realize how it affects you without them having any personal experience with it.

KATE: Yeah, and I think our society also just doesn’t grasp how close so many people are to being unhoused and forced into sleeping in their vehicle.

KAMERON: I think America has kind of idea that Americans aren’t poor, they’re just not rich yet. I think even probably I felt that way until this actually started happening to me.

[MUX IN: JAZZ NOTES, PIANO, DRUM BEATS]

KATE [VO]: Sleep is a key ingredient in our lives. It allows us to hold down our jobs, to be good parents and partners, to be nice to strangers and to have patience, to keep the car on the road, so to speak, but also to handle the hard stuff in life.

Research shows that those struggling to make ends meet, get even less rest. Just living in a poorer neighborhood can be a risk factor for worse sleep.

So how can we be our best — or even just function — without good sleep?

Clinical psychologist, Dr. Shelby Harris

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: Sleep is a basic need that we all have, right?

KATE [VO]: And for many people, just like Kameron, that basic need for safe, comfortable sleep is just not being met. So I wanted to bring back our sleep expert and psychologist, Doctor Shelby Harris.

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: It impacts so many areas of your life. So short term sleep loss can lead to higher risk of accidents. Car accidents, falls. We see that sometimes even with a day or two of significant lack of sleep, it’s equal to certain levels of being, basically your blood alcohol content being legally impaired to drive.

[MUX IN: BEAT/SOUND DESIGN]

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: So just your stability, your functioning, your motor control is really thrown off.

So you’re going to have more issues with memory. And if you’re in school, it’s going to make school a lot more difficult to do. You’re going to have issues with irritability, social functioning, probably, you might not feel as on the ball as you normally would. And so a lot of the things that lack of sleep is influencing during your life, then you start thinking about, I need to sleep more because it’s going to possibly improve these things during my life. And then it becomes just the heightened focus. And when you’re not able to sleep well because of the environment that you’re in or you don’t have the time to do it. That’s the problem, is that’s what becomes then the focus for you.

KATE: So it’s really just a vicious cycle. You’re saying that worrying about sleep compounds itself and then that stresses you out, and then you just really can’t sleep.

And for Kameron or for really young kids, I mean, how can they go to school and actually learn if they’re not sleeping at night?

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: Exactly. And poor sleep or lack of sleep in a kid especially doesn’t look like sleepiness, usually. In kids, it often looks hyperactive.

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: A lot of the kids that we see who are diagnosed with ADHD, ADHD is a definite disorder, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes people don’t say to them: Are you snoring? Do you get enough sleep at night? Those are all things that can look like ADHD hyperactivity, and sometimes these kids get labeled as having other issues. But I think we don’t always think about sleep and how it works into someone’s life and how it might be holding them back a lot of the times.

KATE: Yeah, I mean, Kameron shared a really personal and really painful story about his sleep struggles. Of course all of our circumstances are so individual, but there must be just so many people whose daily stresses rob them of sleep. And I’m thinking about people with anxiety, people trying to raise kids, people holding down multiple jobs, or someone who has recently lost a job, and there are lots of people struggling to just find that safe place to rest, to let their guard down.

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: We have scales in the sleep field and psychiatric field called the fear of sleep scale, for example. So if someone is coming to us because they can’t fall asleep and I know that there’s a history of trauma or something that’s happened at night or nightmares, we look at how, actually, how scared of sleep they are. And if you’re scared or you’re hypervigilant, it makes it very hard to be able to wind yourself down. Or some people find that they can fall asleep because you’re just exhausted. But then it’s almost a lighter sleep for some people because you’re waking up so often to kind of check around you.

KATE [VO]: A safe place to sleep can help give people a foundation for the rest they need.

But Kameron’s story is all too common. I read a recent stat that one-fifth of California community college students experienced housing insecurity. The reality of young people living in their cars is so common that Long Beach City College in Southern California allows students to park on school grounds overnight. That’s so they can live out of their cars and still stay in school. It’s shocking that in our high-tech, advanced country, a car is considered affordable housing.

KATE [VO]: Speaking to Shelby and Kameron has left me with so much to think about. And I hope this is just the start of an honest conversation that we’ll all have in our own communities about sleep equity.

Because in our society, not everyone can get the rest they need. And if sleep is the foundation for how we function as human beings, then safe and secure sleep should be available to everyone.

[MUX IN: THEME MUSIC]

KATE [VO]: To learn more about some sleep therapy books, apps, and resources recommended by our sleep expert, or to find out how you can donate to housing insecurity organizations, please check out our website: “vox dot com slash are you sleeping”.

Next time, on “Are You Sleeping?”, we take questions from you, our curious and sometimes sleepless listeners. And coming soon:

AMY: I wonder if one of the reasons I create in my sleep is because, like music, sleep and dreaming can be this amazing, limitless space where anything can happen. I can go anywhere, I can see anyone, I can hear anything. It’s kind of like stepping into a movie a little bit [laughing] where you get to direct.

KATE [VO]: Before you close the app, please take a moment to subscribe and review the show. If you know someone who might like this podcast, please pass it along. Personal recommendations are one of the best ways to get the word out.

Until next time, go easy on yourself and be patient with those around you. You never know how little sleep they’ve gotten. Or why.

“Are You Sleeping?” is an informational podcast and does not substitute medical advice, contact your doctor if you’re seeking medical advice on your sleeping habits.

(CREDITS)


There are many great organizations working on housing equity and the issues raised in this episode. Here are just some of them:

National Low Income Housing Coalition https://nlihc.org

National Alliance to End Homelessness https://endhomelessness.org

Children’s Defense Fund https://www.childrensdefense.org