Wide awake: Aching for sleep on Detroit’s streets (page 2)

John R & East Grand BlvdRonnie didn’t ever allude to having a home or shelter to go to, instead sitting silently awake while I and two other people slept around him. We had breakfast the next morning, and I said goodbye.

He may have refused help because he was stubborn, but he had been working through this or that system for years. Being homeless was a result of frustration with failures–his own, and the ones he perceived about the system.

There’s a tendency to treat the homeless like they don’t exist. It usually revolves around blame – that alcoholism or substance addiction is the product of fault, not circumstance or illness. Extreme poverty relegates people to a disturbing natural order. Addicted, mentally ill homeless people are victims of their own karma, a caste fundamentally unable to live better lives.

The ailments Ronnie listed are a perfect storm of syndromes that disproportionately affect homeless people. He’s mentally ill–a fact of life for at least a third of Detroit’s 20,000 homeless, according to a 2012 Free Press editorial. He uses alcohol to self-medicate. He’s a victim of crime. He’s physically handicapped. He’s alone – almost 60% of Detroit’s homeless are individuals.

One rarely cited statistic is the frequency with which homeless people are preoccupied with suicide. About 38% of the homeless population is impacted by suicidal ideation over a 30-day period, according to a 2003 study by the National Institute of Health. Of those, 8% tried to kill themselves.

I ran into Ronnie again in the spring. He talked openly about going back to the hospital for Seroquel, a heavy sedative. He wanted enough to kill himself.

I didn’t buy Ronnie beer that day. My own experience had taught me that when people say they want to kill themselves, they just want to feel better. Sometimes, they can be scared or reluctant to go to the hospital, and I couldn’t petition Ronnie unless he was an imminent danger. I was already struggling with my own mental illness, and I let Ronnie disappear.

It was four months until I saw him again on a Saturday evening near Henry Ford Hospital. A middle-aged couple were helping him buy a Bull Ice. Ronnie was stumbling, and drooling, and looked in pain. It was 11 P.M. and I wanted to get home. So I left.

I consoled myself with the fact that he was alive, but he looked worse.

Remembering our first conversation, I wanted to see if there was a way I could help. I found him again a few days later and we talked.

He spoke with the same frankness and piercing exhaustion.

He told me more details about his life: A months-long prison sentence for car theft in the mid-70s and going to Utah with “some white kid I met in rehab,” who abandoned him after the plane landed in Salt Lake City. Ronnie wasn’t as forthcoming as before and he didn’t talk at length.

He still couldn’t sleep and his abdominal wound had healed into a chew of fresh scar tissue, but he didn’t show any other noticeable improvement. He was lucid, not drunk, and willing to answer the question I wondered about most.

What did he want?

He was nearly sixty years old, with no home, no remaining family, he could barely read and was endlessly tired.

“I thought about taking my own life. I’m tired. All I do is drink beer,” his voice thinner than I remembered.

“I’m alive.” It was a deadening realization. “If I had nerve, I’d kill myself right now.”

“What’s something that would prevent you from killing yourself?”


“What does that mean to you?” When he didn’t answer, I tried again.

“What would you want God to do for you?”

“Get me out of here.”

Eventually Ronnie didn’t feel much like talking anymore.

It’s been two weeks since I last saw Ronnie. He’s disappeared from his usual haunts outside Henry Ford and Detroit Receiving. I assume he’s still alive, maybe in the hospital.

But for now, the bus stop and metal grate where Ronnie used to sleep are empty.

I hope he finally got some rest.

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Ryan Healy

Ryan Healy cleans a house for his money but writes for a living. He lives, eats, and sleeps mostly in Detroit.

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