“Uh, we’ve got a situation.” These were Mike’s words just before noon as we were checking out an old factory building along the river. We had been there before, knew the building, and – in an atypical move – allowed ourselves to get separated.
I got the call five minutes into a discussion with two squatters, both appearing to be strung out and lacking sleep. I was on a grated walkway three stories above the concrete floor when I ran into them. As always, they turned out to be pretty nice guys, one said he had a pregnant girlfriend and the other said he needed some help getting his life together. They had already accepted my card and agreed to try to come into the office later this afternoon around 2pm… How could these two guys not be “the situation” in this abandoned factory?
“Mike, I’m standing here with two guys and they say there’s another guy on the third floor of the front building.” Mike’s response: “Yeah, I know, I just met Donald. Meet me at the van.”
I said good-bye to the guys I met and reminded them to come into the office. I wound my way through this cavernous concrete structure, across catwalks and down crumbling stairs dodging puddles and cesspools often a foot or more deep.
Once I got back to the van, Mike informed me that Donald was on the third floor of the front building. He was actively suicidal, and in the last few weeks he had drunk from a bottle of antifreeze, tried overdosing on pills, and failed in an attempt to hang himself on the roof the night before. Mike knew he needed to go to the hospital, but talking a suicidal fifty-year old man out of his squat in a crumbling factory isn’t the type of thing you do one-on-one.
We went back up and Mike introduced me to Donald. He remained seated, staring out the window over the river and past our van – he saw us get out of the van and come into the building without answering our yells or even standing up… he was in one of the deepest states of depression I’ve ever seen, seemingly near catatonic.
He had had nothing to drink but the ammonia-tasting water (his description) that came from the taps in the factory. He’d not eaten in days, possibly a week. He lost track of time, saying his watch stopped working on the 19th and he hadn’t left the building since… we were meeting him on the 30th. He’d been in this suicidal state at least eleven days.
After talking about no longer being what he used to be – meaning he was once successful and independent – he looked at us and said “Part of me is thinking about getting out of here. Part of me wants to tell you guys to get lost. … But I’m leaning toward getting out of here.”
That was good enough for us. Mike called the situation into the Crisis Unit and arranged for us to drop Donald off at the ER where he would be fast tracked into the psychiatric department. But before we left we had to stop in the control room and get his state I.D. which he had hidden on top of an 8 foot metal control tower with old dials and gauges that had not spun or lit-up for years.
It took almost five minutes to get Donald down the three flights of stairs to the ground floor, due to the fact that he needed to take a break every nine or ten steps. Once on the ground floor he sat on a pile of bricks for a few minutes while he gathered the strength to walk out to the van.
At the hospital we were met by the folks from the Crisis Unit and they took over tending to Donald. We checked back in on him today and found out that he is currently on dialysis having nearly destroyed his kidneys, likely in part due to the antifreeze. His blood was becoming septic when we got him to the hospital. We don’t know how long he’ll be there, but discharge is not likely in the immediate future. He is still gravely depressed.
In the homeless services world we say that housing saves lives. I think that this might be the rare case when outreach itself saved a life. Donald didn’t have the physical strength nor motivation to get out of that building on his own. He had no way to call 911. We may well have stumbled across a cold body if we’d waited a few more days to go to the factory. This is not intended to be self-congratulatory. Rather, I point it out because many people don’t understand what is going on in the abandoned buildings. People are living and dying in them when we finally arrive. Many people we talk to remind us of how dangerous the clients we meet could be. I have to keep reminding these folks of how sick they actually are.