September is Suicide Awareness Month.
In the street community, average life expectancy is around 48 years. Let that sink in for a second--48 years old. While our shelter serves primarily older adults (average age 51), there are times when beautiful young people come into our orbit. Then, when they tragically leave our orbit, it puts that statistic more into perspective.
Two weeks ago my neighbor and a one-time shelter guest Liz, was found dead in the woods behind my house. Liz was 22 years old and is believed to have died by suicide. She was found hanging from a tree. My relationship with Liz had developed over the past 4 months or so. She would have mental health emergencies at her camp where she would scream and pull her hair and beat on the ground. There were times when I would run back to her camp with others (my partner, friends) to check on her, talk her down and see if there was any basic need I could help her with. One night she was sitting in the dark screaming to no one. My friend Meta (Bread and Roses/PiPE) and I went back to talk with her. I gave her a flashlight and asked if she needed anything else. She asked for her violin. Her eyes lit up when we told her that we were with Bread and Roses, EGYHOP and the shelter. I always made it really clear to her that I was her neighbor and that I was listening for her. When she felt scared I asked her to try to remember that I'm close by listening for her.
Liz was a punk, like me. She wore ripped up tulle prom dresses, thick black eye liner, high tops with fishnets, lots of gaudy fake jewelry. She told me once when I sat with her on my street after finding her unconscious in the road that it was just really nice to have "another rad girl to talk to". We talked about music once--she played violin and other stringed instruments--and loved grunge music. I daydreamed about starting a neighborhood band with her so we could practice in my basement and she could get away from her camp for a bit. I so badly wanted to offer her a shelter bed every night, but we don't have any to offer. With only 37 beds we are turning people away daily for lack of space.
Liz had clearly experienced extensive trauma. She was experiencing the daily trauma of homelessness and being cut off from all resources. She was experiencing violence and caught in an all too familiar cycle for young women on the streets, being victimized by those in the encampments that have said they will love and protect her. One night my neighbor saw her running down our street with her hands tied behind her back and a man chasing her telling her to shut up. This stuff is complicated--deeply complicated--because the same person that would victimize Liz had most likely had that done to him by someone else. Statistically, that feedback loop goes on and on and on and on.....
As is true with most wooded areas around the city, there are multiple encampments in the greenbelt area near my house in the Upper Eastside Neighborhood. I made over 10 calls to the Olympia Police Department during this time to request wellness checks, multiple calls to Behavioral Health Resources to coordinate with the Designated Mental Health Professionals to try to get Liz evaluated and calls to Code Enforcement at the city to try to figure out what our options were. I've advocated for the City Council to open up a safe parking lot for camping like many other cities have successfully done when partnering with local non-profit agencies and I've spoken with County leadership to expand the newly proposed crisis mobile outreach that is associated with the new Mental Health Triage Center to serve people in encampments who are experiencing non-detainable mental health emergencies. Yet, here we are and another preventable death of a young person has occurred.
Our world is so entrenched in the stigma that people experiencing homelessness bring it upon themselves and that there is no solution to homelessness as we know it. We become frozen by this and we wait and wait and wait and wait. We consider risk management and legalities, lament that there's no funding for it and we don't want to act out of emergency or emotion because it could cause more problems down the road and...and.....and....
While we wait, people (children) are literally dying all around us--literally in our backyards. I understand all the excuses, I really do. My point is that we have to figure out how to be dynamic and creative thinkers and realize that we can consider risk management AND take action at the same time. It is my understanding that this is typically called a Pilot Project. Entities take on a risk for a set period of time and then if it fails, they shut it down; if it succeeds, they fund it further. Cities all over the country and specifically on the West Coast are grappling with how to deal with a steady increase in street homelessness and the need for mental health resources. Cities are opening parking lots for safe camping in partnership with non-profits, they are redirecting funds to deal with this issue by providing services to people rather than increased police presence to give citations and jail time, cities are buying motels and converting them into additional shelter beds/permanent supportive housing, they are taking the lead to initiate housing levies on the ballot because they see this as a political priority and they are coordinating with all other levels of government with more resources to create solutions.
I am tired that the people that I love are dying. I was tired of it in 2012 when Cassie and Jeff and I started to tell the city and the community what we thought about all of this. Our shelter team has saved many lives since we opened and I am grateful for that. But we still have to turn people away every night, sending them out into a city that criminalizes and stigmatizes them, where the blankets we give them cannot protect them from violence, murder, suicide, rape, theft, drug use, and isolation. Where they will likely be asked to move along from any place that’s protected from the rain. Where having a decent place to camp might mean they’re afraid to report having been raped because they think the police will clear their camp.
This will continue to be the experience of unhoused and unsheltered people, until we as a community decide to act on our professed progressive values. A death like Liz’s, with zero media coverage, is an outrage; it goes against everything we say we value. But saying we value something isn’t enough. We must build our political will — our willingness to take risks, make sacrifices, and learn from our mistakes — at all levels of government. We must take this issue seriously and recognize that it is a massive piece of the puzzle when it comes to economic development in our city. We can't have one without the other.
At moments like these I tend to feel overwhelmed. Anyone with me?? When that happens, I try to think of concrete, immediate actions to take. My challenge to everyone, in the spirit of taking action while realizing that we can't solve it all with one blog post, is to embrace the desire to be generous today. If someone asks you for money and you think "I want to do that but what if....", just do it. I promise that no one can do anything too detrimental in their lives with the $1, $5, $10 you might give them. It will make them feel human for one minute and that is worth 10x any amount of spare change you have. If you have no money to give, roll down your window/lift your head up, say hello and tell them it's nice to see them today. We can be a community that finds Liz's death unacceptable -- among countless others whom we don't even know -- and decides to take responsible action, rather than throwing up our hands in defeat and allowing this to continue.
If you are interested in getting more involved, let me know! Also, consider coming to our next volunteer training on October 8th 1-4pm and email firstname.lastname@example.org with any thoughts.
Meg Martin, MSW, MHP, is the Shelter Program Director for The Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter.