My 17-year-old client killed himself this week. I was getting ready to leave work Friday afternoon when I saw my coworker Kayla on the phone to someone, saying, “No, don’t drive right now. Just wait for someone to come pick you up. You don’t need to be driving right now.” When she saw me she tilted the phone away from her mouth and said, “I’m on the phone with Bethany. Jordan killed himself.” She tilted the mouthpiece forward and went back to listening to Bethany cry as she told what happened. Kayla looked over at me and mouthed, “He hung himself,” as she mimed tying a noose around her neck.
My mom was lying on the couch when I got home, and I crawled into the crook of her legs and laid my head on her hip.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, frightened. She has a way of knowing when I’m hurting.
“Mom, I’m just so sad,” I sobbed. I told my parents about Jordan, how he was so young and had bounced around from homeless shelter to homeless shelter for years, getting kicked out of each for smoking pot or hooking up with girls or being irreverent. He had beautiful dark, smooth skin and a half-smile that came off as a smirk but I think it was simply Jordan being too shy to fully smile. I tried to explain that Jordan was a sweet kid, quiet, and smarter than he realized, but he coped with all the shit going on in his life and in his head with weed and girls and skateboarding. He slept in the park and his girlfriend had a baby on the way but he still spoke of becoming a tattoo artist, specializing in Japanese-style tattoos. He wanted to name his kid Hero if it was a boy.
“Seventeen,” my dad sighed and shook his head. “Oh my. I wonder if anyone told him about Jesus. I wonder if he had a moment where he met the Lord. I wonder if he was a believer.”
“How could he be a believer,” I choked, “when everyone in his life had abandoned him?”
Including me, I thought. Including me.
My friends in Denver give out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day to homeless people in the park. They think they are doing a good thing, and they are. My friends like to share videos and news clips on Facebook about the 90-year-old man who was arrested for feeding the homeless or the barber who gives free haircuts every Sunday to people living on the streets. They are heartwarming and serve to confirm my friends’ belief that they are doing good giving PB&Js to the guys and gals in the park.
The latest article that went around was about an agency in Vancouver creating park benches where the back of the bench folds up to provide shelter from rain or snow when someone is sleeping there. My friends in Denver thought this was quite a clever idea and evidence of what a caring society looks like. “There should be benches like these in Denver!” they said. I related the story to my boyfriend, certain that he too would be outraged that instead of housing the homeless, we make slight improvements to unlivable conditions and call it good enough for a human being.
“I mean, how much money do you think they spent on those benches? Thousands? Tens of thousands?” I shrilled.
“I dunno,” Joe said, “but it’s better than nothing. Don’t you think?”
A dog named Roadrunner was strangled, beaten, and thrown off a balcony in Kansas City. Roadrunner lost both his eyes in the incident and when the story of his abuse became public knowledge, the city was incensed. Hundreds of concerned citizens called for the prosecution of his former owner and many people offered to adopt him from the shelter where animal control brought him after they found him in the street. A local t-shirt company made “Roadrunner is my Hero” shirts with images of the blind Spaniel, and sales of the shirts raised over $5,000 for his medical care. I am still trying to wrap my head around the fact that Kansas City can raise $5,000 in one day by selling t-shirts for a blind dog but our community cannot manage to find the $11,000-$14,000 it would take to house a homeless person for an entire year.
Joe and my parents tell me it’s not my fault Jordan committed suicide, and that I can’t take responsibility for it. I say I could have done more and they disagree, and they are kind of right. I don’t believe that more strengths-based case management or more goal setting or more needs assessments would have prevented Jordan from killing himself. I think he had enough adults in his life asking him when he was going to grow up or what he was going to do with his life or how he was going to raise his baby or why did he miss his appointment or when he was going to stop spending his money on weed or why didn’t he go back to school or where was he going to sleep that night. He didn’t need me adding my voice to the choir.
But I wonder what could have happened if I had put aside the case manager-client bullshit and told him that I truly cared about him? Told him that I thought he was a really cool and creative kid, and not to be so hard on himself or let things get to him. That we all fuck up when we are seventeen, and if he knew me at seventeen he would see what a damn mess I was. That smoking weed does not make you a bad person. That using substances to make yourself less sad is a normal thing to want to do but eventually you have to figure out why you are sad in the first place and start working on that stuff. That he was going to be a great dad and his kid would adore him. That just because his dad wasn’t around doesn’t mean he was going to bail, too. That he was kind and intelligent and perfectly capable of using his cute face to charm future employers and art school admissions reps, not just high school girls. That I couldn’t wait to get tattooed by him. That he didn’t have to sleep outside and he could come live with me. That I loved him just like so many people loved him.
There is no resolution to this story. Jordan’s death is a tragedy, a tragic end to a tragic story. I’m not going to try to gloss over it by saying, “Oh, Jordan is in Heaven so it’s fine,” or “It’s better this way because he had a hard life and it was only going to get harder.” No. Fuck that. We lost this young man, this boy, because we as a society have come to believe that it is acceptable for a human being to be homeless. We say that it is okay for a child to lose his housing because he made a mistake. We think it is better for a person to sleep outside than for a dog to do so.
So that’s just it then. The world doesn’t need any more case management meetings. The world doesn’t need more innovative park benches. The world doesn’t need peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or prayers. It needs people to treat each other like human beings, in the roof-over-your-head sort of way. In the I-love-you, don’t-give-up, sort of way. Before we lose one more.