A portrait of Chester Bell.
Chester Bell was previously unhoused for a total of three years. (Zach Bauman/ The Beacon)

If you see a homeless person sleeping in public during the day, assume nothing. Though Kansas City doesn’t keep an exact count, nationally nearly 40% of unhoused individuals living on the street work full- or part-time jobs, and a significant number of those choose to work night jobs. 

There are many reasons why the unhoused might prefer night work – among them a higher rate of pay and a lower risk of falling into bad habits for those in addiction recovery. Working during the night and sleeping during the day pose unique challenges that Kansas City is not well equipped to meet, homeless advocates say.

Chester Bell knows. Though no longer unhoused, he underwent three years of intermittent bouts of homelessness where he worked a slew of jobs, many of them overnight. 

“It was just an extremely hard thing to maintain,” he said. “One day, the bus didn’t come and I didn’t have a phone so I walked to a construction site that we were at. But that was a 6 1/2 mile walk,” he said.

While Bell’s boss was initially understanding of the circumstances that caused him to be late, his extended grace was not long-lasting. 

“Even he got tired of a lot of the issues that came up with me being homeless. So eventually, I ended up losing that job.”

Bell’s case is not unusual. Contrary to popular belief, unhoused individuals are often employed. A 2021 study by the University of Chicago found that about 53% of unhoused individuals living in shelters and 40% of unhoused individuals sleeping on the street between 2011 and 2018 maintained part-time or full employment in the year they experienced houselessness.

The Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness’ 2022 point-in-time count recorded at least 711 unsheltered individuals and families in Kansas City.  

There is no Kansas City-specific data on the percentage of unhoused residents with jobs; national data shows that many unhoused people work, and a large number, especially men, work through the night. 

While resources exist for night workers who need shelter during the day in Kansas City, they are limited, as the majority of local shelters only offer beds at night. Additionally, many unhoused individuals do not know about the options that do exist to support their night shifts.  

Shelter KC, a Kansas City rescue mission, is one of the few shelters that offer beds to day sleepers. 

“At this point we have five day sleepers with us. We can get to six or seven but it is in that range,” said Eric Burger, the executive director of Shelter KC. 

Burger says that often people are unemployed when they begin staying at Shelter KC, but they eventually secure a night-shift job, and the shelter will continue to accommodate them, to their surprise. 

“A lot of folks aren’t aware that’s an option for them.”

Why night shifts appeal to unhoused people

Differential pay – the additional compensation an hourly employee receives based on the time or tasks associated with their shift –  is a key factor as to why some unhoused individuals prefer to work at night.

“That would be the primary reason why people choose night jobs,” said Bell.

Employers needing employees to work a third shift offer differential pay as an incentive. 

At one point, Bell drove trucks on a local Missouri route from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. The trucking industry is known to provide night drivers with differential incentives. Bell said he made a decent income, but after paying child support and for everyday necessities such as food, he often came up short. 

And while many take on night shifts for employment reasons, others prefer night shifts for personal reasons, Burger said.

People in recovery sometimes choose to work overnight to avoid falling into old habits, he explained. “So working after hours gives them stability if they want to stay active and accountable during that time frame.”

Daytime sleep poses unique risks

And while night work might offer some protections, day sleep poses its own problems. Depending on an unsheltered individual’s location, setup, or pure chance, one could be subject to attacks or theft from others. 

“There’s a lot more active people out and about. So the chances of something happening to you while you’re asleep are really increased,” Bell said. “People do a lot of things when they are desperate and outside.”

Sleeping while unhoused makes someone vulnerable to unprovoked attacks from an aggressor simply in need of whatever you may have, according to Bell. 

Unhoused night workers struggle with transportation as well as safety. 

Bell said that when he was working as a nighttime truck driver, he often could not use local buses because they often end their routes by 10 p.m.

“I ended up walking through a lot of places,” he said.  “In three days, I think I walked close to 47 miles because I was just trying to make it to work and home – what I called home.”

Chris Shelar was last unhoused in 2011. He is now a manager at KC Can Compost. Shelar spent a total of eight years sleeping under bridges and in camps, with his longest stretch being six years, he said.  During that time, he worked the late shift at a liquor store, where he would usually get off at 1:30 a.m. 

His boss, who knew Shelar was unhoused, would often offer Shelar help by letting him take showers in the building.

“Everything else, I had to come up with my own. My own clothes, washing my own clothes, getting food, sleeping in the elements, all that stuff,” he said. 

 “The hardest part was mainly hygiene and finding somewhere safe to sleep” during the day.

A portrait of Chris Shelar.
Chris Shelar was unhoused for a total of eight years. (Zach Bauman/ The Beacon

Shelar felt safe because he slept in an encampment with friends, but admits that theft is an expected occurrence for those sleeping outside.  

“The only thing I kept under the bridge was stuff that I can afford to lose, like clothing. Everything that was on me as I traveled was stuff of value,  like papers, a change of clothes, hygiene; if it was winter, winter gear,” he said. 

Shelar also walked to work, about a 20-minute distance between the store and the bridge he lived under. He carried all his valued items with him.

“It’s like everybody else you see that’s homeless, nine times out of 10 they have a backpack that was your life. Anything I left under the bridge, I didn’t want to lose it, but if it did get taken it was something I could replace.”

Many who sleep in encampments also face the threat of having their makeshift homes torn down, especially since Missourit has officially criminalized homelessness, making it illegal to camp on state-owned land as of Jan. 1. 

Shelar has gotten crossways with railroad workers and the Missouri Department of Transportation due to his camp being located near train tracks. 

“You had to be aware that maybe they might come in and tear your camp down or you come back and all your stuff is gone, but that would be the extent of anything that I was worried about,” he said.

Where do night-shift workers sleep?

While Kansas City has a multitude of resources for unhoused populations, there is a shortage of resources for night workers. ReStart Inc. is the only low-barrier emergency shelter, or a shelter with minimal requirements for entry, in the city that offers all-day refuge. While reStart was awarded a $137,000 grant in 2022, the organization is greatly underfunded, with limited capacity and resources. 

BothShelter KC and City Union Mission are faith-based ministries that offer beds to day sleepers who work late shifts while in their transitional work initiatives. 

At Shelter KC, the day sleeper program is only offered in the 62-bed men’s shelter. When an individual comes, they have a 14-day basic stay, after which they can enroll in the Shelter Launch program, where they are assigned a life coach and a permanent bed so they can secure employment and craft a plan to achieve housing. The success of transitional programs is contingent on factors such as the client’s participation and sobriety.  

At Shelter KC, day sleepers are offered delayed wakeup times in comparison to the rest of the shelter, who are awakened  at 6 a.m.

“Our normal check-in time darts at 3:30 in the afternoon and the latest is 5:30, but if you’re working a job at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning we’re going to accommodate that,” Burger said.

Most day sleepers aren’t day sleepers every night, he said. Many may work three nights during one schedule and two nights during another, but they can still utilize the program. 

 “If you came at 1 a.m. we’d let you sleep till 9 a.m. If you come in the morning, you have access to the dorm until 5 p.m. We accommodate them and they own that bed.”

But after checking out during the day, shelter residents who still need rest are forced to find it somehow. Some may go to hotels for the afternoon, but this option is not financially stable in the long term.

“If you’re not aware of the services that are available, you will rent a room just to be able to take a shower and to have a decent day’s rest,” said Bell. “So your paycheck can disappear very quickly.”

Day sleepers also find solace in public spaces, such as airports, cars, parks and other locations where they can escape inclement weather. 

“If it’s 104 degrees outside during the day and you’re trying to sleep so you can work at night, they’ll say, ‘Oh, well, there’s places you can go to cool off.’ OK, well, I can’t go and sleep at the library. And I can’t go and sleep at the cooling places.”

Unhoused individuals who do try to get some shuteye in public spaces are occasionally met with well-intentioned employees who may overlook loitering policy until they can’t. 

“These places are all so limited and can only do so much, just letting you sleep there that hour or two out of whatever is breaking the rules of their organization.”

And, for those who find nighttime shelter on their off days, an inability to sleep at night due to their work schedules may still cause them to sleep outside.

“You got a place to go and be warm for your technical day, but then come daylight, you’re being shoved out the door at 6 and 7 o’clock in the morning. So at that point you still have nowhere to go. Then you have to go find somewhere to try to safely chill,” said Bell. 

“And a lot of times that’s the woods, or somewhere in the park.”

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MILI MANSARAY is the housing and labor reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. Previously, she was a freelance reporter and Summer 2020 intern.