THE SEA OUTSIDE
The rise in suicides in King County’s Homeless Community
by Michele Marchand; originally published in Real Change in 2005
On the streets, where last names are seldom important or even known, Dinah Lane was often called Dinah Shore. Although both these Dinahs had strawberry blond hair and amazing smiles, you couldn’t imagine someone less like the sunny 1950s television hostess and singer than Dinah Lane. She was a homeless activist, a striver for justice, and was always reading thick tomes from the Public Library. She engaged for hours in intense, thoughtful conversation about the government, systems and conspiracies.
Last year, around the holidays, she fell silent. Suddenly she was never without Catholic prayer cards or her Bible. At women’s day centers and her nighttime shelter, she would meditate quietly for many hours, holding her cards between prayerful hands. She sat at the lunch table silently, also, and would always pack up and take away enough food for two people.
In the midafternoon of Tuesday, January 3rd, 2005 Dinah Lane jumped to her death from the 18th floor of the Warwick Hotel in downtown Seattle. Her death, and that she chose to kill herself, shocked those who knew her, although everyone had seen her change. Hers was the fourth in a series of six suicides among homeless people in King County in the past two months.
According to statistics kept by the Medical Examiners Office and Women in Black, these six suicides comprise 30% of homeless deaths in the past two months.
The first of these recent suicides in the homeless community was 35-year-old Frank Zanella, who hanged himself in the 600 block of NE 68th on November 4th. Then, on November 5th, 38-year-old Victor Mitchell jumped to his death from the Aurora Bridge. On November 15th, Jayme Engleson threw herself in front of a moving train in Auburn. She was just 21 years old.
On January 2nd, Jose de Jesus Gomez-Mora hanged himself in a Kent apartment or motel. And on January 10th, John Mark Perdue hanged himself, apparently at Harborview Hospital.
Experts say suicide is chosen by simple formula: the pain a person is experiencing outweighs the resources available for him/her to withstand the pain. Sometimes there is also magical thinking: for those who leap to their deaths, sometimes it’s because they believe they can fly, or that they’ll join the angels. A woman who saw Dinah Lane shortly before she jumped reports that Dinah said she was “on her way to join Peter.” “You mean Saint Peter?” I asked, and Dinah’s friend said she thought so.
Another of Dinah’s friends reacted to her death in a way that surprised me, a way that has since been echoed by many homeless people I’ve talked to: “Geez, that’s not how I would do it.” “Is it something you think about?” I asked. “All the time,” she replied.
Behind Barbed Wire
At the first notification meeting for the suburban Tent City4, a man unknown to Tent City organizers stood and attempted to calm his neighbors, who were screaming themselves red-faced with fear and rage. He said, “I don’t think any of you has gone through what I’ve gone through. My wife and I came home one day to find our son had hanged himself in the garage. He needed help; the kind of help these people (sweeping his arms towards the homeless people of Tent City) are trying to provide.”
At this point, his rage-filled neighbors started screaming again: “That’s your problem! That’s your fault! He was your son; you should’ve been the one helping him!”
Even the television reporters, behind a phalanx of cameras, seemed slack-jawed with awe at this turn of events. It’s this kind of rage and shaming, and also the perspective that any individual or family alone can save someone, that the poor man who lost his son to suicide was talking about. Families can never take care of their own completely; community support also is needed. And further: Estrangement from family, from friends, and from community is absolutely one of the precursors to suicide; I know this from my own experience.
After her death, we learned that Dinah Lane had two children she had not seen for 18 years. Her son is on active duty in Iraq; her daughter is in college in the Midwest. When a friend of Dinah’s learned this, she said, “I don’t know how anyone could hold that in her heart and not talk about it.”
A recent Canadian study of homeless suicides observes what shouldn’t surprise us: homelessness is an increased risk factor for suicide; the risk increases with the amount of time a person spends homeless.
Here, this has been a particularly hard year for the homeless community. Pitched divisions between poor people and people of means have been laid bare. In the past several months, for instance, opponents of Tent Cities have publicly likened Tent Cities to “kennels,” to a “gulag,” even to Auschwitz.
The holiday season was particularly hard. This Christmas, for the first time in the nearly 20 years I’ve worked among homeless communities, homeless people spoke openly of the hard holidays. This year, Christmas was something to be withstood, if you could, not enjoyed.
Recently, two homeless women, struggling to write a press release for a Women in Black vigil for four new deaths (including two suicides), ended up writing: “We’re considered a throw-away group. Sometimes we throw ourselves away.”
Here, I fear, is the effect: I bumped into an overly polite, very courtly, Spanish-speaking homeless woman I’ve known for some years on the streets the other day. “Miss Michele,” she said to me, “I had the most horrible dream last night. In my dream, I had gotten a new job, a cleaning job. They took me to the place I was supposed to clean, and it was where they–how do you say it–they make people into toast. You know, with the ovens….”
“You mean you were supposed to clean the concentration camps?” I asked.
Her eyes got very wide, and she said, “Oh yes! But they did not want me to clean the ovens, they were going to push me in and I ran away, very fast.”
Dinah Lane’s leaf is placed at Angelines
Featured Leaf February 2013