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Sleeping at the margins: a qualitative study of homeless drug users who stay in emergency hostels and shelters

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Sarah Nettleton, Joanne Neale, Caral Stevenson

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)319-328
Number of pages10
JournalCritical Public Health
Issue number3

King's Authors


A growing social science literature demonstrates that sleep is not merely a personal matter but also a political problem and a public health issue. Taking this as a point of departure, our article presents an analysis of sleeping practices amongst homeless drug users (HDUs) who make use of emergency hostels and night shelters in England. Data generated by way of qualitative interviews undertaken with 29 men and 11 women reveal that, as we might expect, securing sleep for this group is by no means easy. The strategies they pursue to find places to sleep are described, as are the threats and barriers to their sleeping. Emergency hostels and night shelters can afford a lifeline; providing warmth, water, food and access to support services. But if these are inadequately resourced they can be experienced as volatile environments and inimical to sleeping. It is argued here that although sleep is an essential prerequisite for health, for this population it can, somewhat ironically, be experienced as a risky behaviour. Vulnerable to both physical risks (e.g. inclement weather) and social threats (e.g. abuse and violence), falling asleep can exacerbate exposure to such dangers. These vulnerabilities are compounded by the social position of HDUs who live in socially and physically marginal places. It is this marginality that prevents them from being able to secure sleep that is both restful and restorative.

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