New York City, USA

The gift of sleep

After her life in Montana took an unexpected turn, Sandra evolved into a seasoned survivor on the streets of New York. “The hardest part of being homeless is exhaustion. I call sleep ‘the gift of sleep’ because it’s so hard to get.” – Sandra

Photography & storytelling: Tony Dočekal
Est. 4 minutes

After her life in Montana took an unexpected turn, Sandra evolved into a seasoned survivor on the streets of New York. “The hardest part of being without shelter is exhaustion. I call sleep ‘the gift of sleep’ because it’s so hard to get.” – Sandra

The concept of Sheltersuit won the heart of designer Gabriela Hearst. This resulted in a generous donation from her and #soonforward towards the first distribution of Sheltersuits to keep 250 unsheltered homeless individuals warm this winter.

We are working with four local organizations from NYC (P.O.T.S. Bronx, Prospect Park Church, Sidewalk Samaritan, and Sant Edigio) to best understand how we can add value to an overwhelmed system.

From this, we are collecting feedback from both our distribution partners and our unsheltered friends. This will be used to create a distribution strategy to scale our value across the USA, and also redesign the Sheltersuit to best fit the needs of unsheltered Americans. 


“The gift of sleep” – Sandra’s Story

Sandra (60) has lived in Montana with her husband and 2 children for most of her life. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, it changed everything. Her marriage of 33 years came to an end, and she was put in a protection program in Portland. Thereafter, she moved to New York and has been homeless for almost 7 years.

We went to see Sandra after her first night sleeping outside in the Sheltersuit. Sandra sleeps in front of St. Francis Church every night, in the exact spot where a guy called Major used to sleep before her.

“This morning I got rid of my homemade bivvy, my sleeping bag, a heavy coat, canvas bag, and a backpack, and two pairs of socks which I no longer needed because of the Sheltersuit. It created the warmth, without needing all the weight that I was carrying. And the guy I gave all my stuff to was super happy.”

“The hardest part of being without shelter is exhaustion. I call sleep ‘the gift of sleep’, because it’s so hard to get.”

– Sandra

Sandra is a survivor and knows how to take care of herself. Some of her favorite gear includes a small heating system, padlock, and compact toiletries.

“In Montana, we were a hardy bunch. Being homeless, I have lived on the streets for the majority. I have tried the shelters more than most. I was assaulted three times. I was put into what is called a safe haven. I’ve had my computer stolen, my room broken into. I actually hit the streets on November 6th last year, and I’ve been staying on the streets since then. I’m kind of out of the system now.”

One winter, Sandra lived in terminal 8 in JFK airport.

“It was so nice. I could lay down, and not be bothered. They never expected I was homeless because I kept everything tidy.”

– Sandra

Sandra warms up inside Penn Station

Whenever she feels alone or afraid at night, Sandra draws hope and strength from her faith in Jehovah. She listens to songs and finds comfort in the lyrics. She sang one of her favorite songs for us in Penn Station.

“It feels good to feel wanted and help people”

This is Major, who used to sleep at Sandra’s old spot in front of St. Francis Church. Major has been experiencing homelessness in NYC for 2 years. For one month now, he has been staying in a hotel, provided by the city due to the COVID pandemic.

“This is where I used to sleep. We had to come here after 6 in the evening. We had to be up by about 5:30 in the morning, because this is where they had the breadline every morning. They give out food seven days a week, all year round. This is where I’ve been sleeping for the past couple years. This was my little spot. But I’m in a hotel now, so I’m good.”

– Major

Since he has been inside, Major goes out daily to check in with the homeless community. He brings them food and connects them to local outreach organizations he stays in touch with.

“I’m very grateful I’m inside. But you never know, I might end up back out here, so I help whoever I can. That’s what I’d want people to do.”

Major introduced us to John (63) from NYC, who sleeps outside Penn Station. He was warming up inside the station when he said “I never stay inside here long. I don’t like this vibe.”

On the Sheltersuit, John commented “I think it’s amazing. It feels good. Lying down I know it will cover the wind.”

People helping people

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About this project

For this ongoing project, we engage with unhoused communities in various cities. The intimate documentary reflects the unraveling of society and exposes the equal measures of strength and vulnerability of each of its characters.

By capturing these raw moments in a new light, we challenge the mainstream representation of a growing, forgotten group. It reminds us that people who experience homelessness should neither be labeled nor disregarded. Everyone has a story to tell.