Middle Class Homeless Push Up Suicide Rates

depressed womanWhen you tumble from middle class to homeless, time and space isn’t flat as it is for most people, it bends and curves just as Einstein predicted – even if in ways he hadn’t anticipated – and it requires a major effort merely to remain upright.

Real and imagined slights, things other people might not even notice, cut intensely and take on monstrous, totally distorted, proportions.

Highs – as few as they are – send the spirit soaring in a dizzying climb towards the stratosphere. But the feeling only lasts briefly because a stomach-knotting low worse than the first drop on the world’s most terrifying coaster ride is always lurking, ready to scare off hopes and dreams.

So, emotions always lurk just below the surface, all raw and rough and ragged, and triggered with no warning: An IKEA commercial about how much people love their home; that’s because it’s always there for them. Watching Modern Family; it wins Emmy’s for Best Comedy but is too poignant to be funny for anyone without a family or home, modern or otherwise. Overhearing somebody mention a “family dinner” or “house warming party” as I pass them on the street; at times, I start weeping uncontrollably.

Channeling Janis 

Janis Joplin was right: Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.

“If this is freedom, then lock me up,” sighs Wendy, a 30-year old mother who has been raising two boys under the age of eight alone since her husband disappeared after their youngest was born. She’s been homeless for the past five years after her house in the New York City borough of Queens was foreclosed in late 2007. When I spoke with her and mentioned the Joplin hit, she snorted, “There’s nothing left for us to lose but I don’t feel very free.”

During periods when she and her children aren’t able to live with relatives or friends, they’re forced into a tawdry motel room not far from their former house or enduring prolonged stays at roach- and rat-infested city shelters. Although the boys still attend their old school, keeping them there means Wendy has had to move frequently inside the school’s boundaries.

Meanwhile, she holds down three part-time jobs all over New York to add to what little the family receives from assistance, food banks and SNAP, soup kitchens and charities. Depending on the day, she toils as an office cleaner in Manhattan, a waitress in Queens and bartender near LaGuardia Airport.

To Wendy, at times the struggle is overwhelming. “It’s only the boys that keep me alive. They’re all I have left. Without them, I wouldn’t have a reason for living.”

Death Watch

In a perverse way, Wendy is lucky because her kids give her a reason to continue battling.

For far too many other homeless people, depression becomes deadly, sinking them into an ever-deepening hole from which death becomes the way out. When the American Public Health Journal reported in June, 2012 that suicide now kills more people than car crashes every year, few activists and doctors who work with homeless families were surprised.

“For people who’d been living a fairly good life, however they defined ‘good,’ every material thing they valued got yanked away,” says psychiatrist Dr. Irvin Wolkoff whose patient list includes men and women who became homeless. “They’ve gone from living well to living at the bottom of a well, barely surviving at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy and can see no clear path to things getting any better.

“Suicide starts to seem like a happy alternative,” he concedes, sadly.

Dr. Wolkoff is correct: I’ve been there, tried it, failed miserably.

Within a few weeks of being hit by a car in 2011, I saw what was coming. I’d be losing my house, money had run out and I couldn’t find work, food was scarce, everything in my body hurt, my brain wouldn’t work properly, days were filled with painful physical therapy and frustrating doctor’s appointments while nights were lonely stretches of blackened emptiness.

One evening in mid-January, I slipped Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – the original BBC version with Alec Guinness – into the DVD player to watch one last time, began swallowing every psychotropic and prescription medicine I had in the house, and slit my wrists. The pills were washed down down with generous swigs from a bottle of a single malt Scotch someone once gave me as a gift but I’d never opened.

Earlier, I had written letters to my lawyer and my doctor with a large “privileged communications” on each envelop to discourage snooping by police; I knew they’d be called eventually and was a reporter long enough to know they’re almost all corrupt. I placed a large sign prominently inside the door directing whoever found me to call my friend Lisa. She’d agreed to put my pooch Prince down if anything ever happened to me rather than having him caged and carted him off to who-knew-what-fate at the Inhumane Society.

At some point, I drifted off.

Unfortunately, I’m not a bleeder and although I was unconscious for 14 hours, the blood coagulated too quickly to nudge me over the edge. Nearly a full bottle of Scotch coupled with the meds wasn’t strong or sufficient enough. I came around hearing Prince barking, telling me he hadn’t been fed or let out.

I wasn’t successful at living and was just as big a failure at dying.

Losing It All

Me and Bobby McGee is more than a song from a time long ago and a land far away; it’s a kind of bitter anthem because I have nothing left worth losing except my dog and the clothes I can carry with me. It’s a common feeling.

“We sold what we could, packed the car with as much as we could, and then drove away,” recalls Jaden Monroe who, along with his partner Celia, lost their home some 18 months ago. He’s 48 and had built a 20-year career as a manager at a food distribution company where he earned $60,000 annually, plus benefits, until the company was sold and he was let go in . Now he works in a food warehouse earning $14 an hour but no health insurance or 401(k) plan.

“We lived modestly but were always two, maybe three paychecks away from the poor house,” Jaden admits. “When I got laid off and couldn’t find another job, we were trapped.”

Now the couple lives in a rusting Winnebago parked behind an abandoned factory near Buffalo, New York. Celia admits that, “Everything’s gone and most days I wish I was dead.”

Celia tells me by phone this includes “our family photos, my grandmother’s China and crystal, most of our clothes. I still cry when I think about it.”

I know all too well what she means.

Gone is my house, my bed, nearly 2,000 books, a collection of movies and BBC dramas on DVDs, boxes of family photographs, my dad’s Navy officer cap from World War II. Gone is my clock radio, most of my clothes and even a towel to dry myself with after taking a shower. Gone, too, is the hand-written family recipe book started by my great-grandmother and added to by family members who followed, including me. Gone are the cake pans and cookie sheets and pie dishes I’d use when recreating Granny’s recipes.

Gone is a large box containing five unpublished manuscripts I’d written over the years, including two thoroughly mediocre novels that will never see ink-on-paper after my death because I am no John Kennedy O’Toole.

Gone, especially, is the feeling of security that comes from knowing that, whatever happened during the day, I could go to my house, lock the door and shut out the world for a few hours.

Even Prince lost his box of toys including a favorite, an old, knotted up sock he loved to tug on as I pulled the other end. I still have socks but too few pairs to turn one into a dog’s toy.

In the face of any adversity, one of my grandmothers would proclaim, “At least you have your health.” Sorry, Mildred, but you were wrong. Good health may be a baseline but it’s not nearly enough. People need something to stop time and space from bending.

Charley James

Author and journalist Charley James’ next book is about his experience becoming homeless. When published, Charley will donate a percentage of his advance and royalties to homeless organizations.

More articles by Charley James

Help keep Charley living indoors.

Follow Charley on Twitter @SuddenlyHomeles. Posted: Saturday, 22 September 2012 Charley’s next book is about his experience being homeless. When published, he will donate a percentage of his royalties to homeless organizations.

Published: Saturday, 6 October 2012


  1. Tony Martin says

    I found this blog while looking for answers about my own personal dilemma. I was married for 13 years, divorced in 2010. Separated for two years before that. I have two children who are really the only thing that keeps me going. Since my split with my wife I have lost my home, most of my belongings and rarely see my kids. I’ve had around a dozen dead end jobs and often think of suicide. I used to be so happy…. But now I feel like I’m never going to recover. I see so many people on the streets these days, it feels like an epidemic of growing proportions. I used to say that happiness was a conscious decision, and that your problems could be overcome by a positive outlook and choosing to be happy. Now I don’t know. I’ve been on this downward spiral for nearly 7 years now and it keeps getting worse. I fear myself, and don’t want to hurt the ones I love. I too have thought about writing a book about my experience. But it seems like no one really wants to hear it. The world seems to be regressing. Or is it just me?

    • says

      How I relate to what the both of you have gone through…indeed still are enduring ! I , too am homeless, and it has been several times for me. I live in Southern California. I was born here almost 60 years ago, and barely recognize the region I have always loved. As you have found out for yourselves, once you ARE homeless, the laws and requirements are so convoluted and rigged, corrupted, that you are actually being held in place by the strange anti-American economy, and politics that never improve. I wound up homeless most recently because of a room mate who suddenly decided that he wants to go to New York to be an actor, and so he announced a week from the rent coming due, that he was leaving, and if I wanted to pay ALL of the rent I am welcome to stay. After going into the shelter system such as it is, I found that the shelters warehouse us homeless and lose money if we become housed permanently. They want you to cycle endlessly to and from the shelters year by year. Hardly any moderate and low-income housing ever gets built, mostly just office, and high-end condos and lofts. Why in Glendale alone many EXPENSIVE ones for $2,000-$3,000 are going up speedily, after little construction. It’s no accident either. I must leave this state to survive, ultimately. I had an apartment in Glendale, $350.00 to start, from that price to $450 when I had to give it up to save my best friend’s house, so I stepped up and moved into a mobile home to catch real estate brokers breaking the law, but my friend died unexpectedly, point being, if you can get a room mate who is eligible for senior housing and move in with them, that is one way to end the cycle before becoming eligible yourself for such places. There is a long waiting list in most big cities. Not much time left to type here today, but try to join a housing first movement. Mother Jones magazine has a current issue about giving a place no strings, to homeless people…not all of us have addiction issues unless you are like me, a foodie. No one is making a big enough noise about this really. Yesterday on NPR, there was an appalling story about the L.A.Mission giving all the tenants in their 45-unit apartment just TWO WEEKS to vacate their little bachelor apts. because the Mission is going to sell the thing. If you Google ‘ l.a..mission to sell low-income apartment ‘ building it comes right up. They SAY that they will replace the housing, but that could take months if not years. What are these already-traumatized- homeless-before souls to do NOW ? The reason for THIS ? To make the tenants return to Skid Row for “homeless services.” Ugh ! If you can find other homeless that are NOT TOXIC PEOPLE to band together with, you won’t feel so alone.

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