Bend baby boomer in a better place

Video: Former resident reads a letter of thanks to the Bethlehem Inn

By Mac McLean / The Bulletin / @agingbeat

”I checked my rope several times a day, not just to make sure it was still there but that the knot was still tightly wound and would not fail on its final use,” reads a note Greg Murphy, 59, left in his room at the Bethlehem Inn when he checked out of the shelter two months ago and started a new chapter of his life.

Murphy's note tells the story of a man who lost his job at the height of the economic downturn and couldn't find work no matter how hard he tried. It's a story he shares with millions of other baby boomers — Americans born between 1946 and 1964 — who may continue to struggle in today's job market.

Murphy's letter also tells the story of how his joblessness brought on a downward spiral of depression that led him to tie a noose and pick out what he calls “an appropriate place” to hang himself. Fortunately, Murphy never moved forward with these plans because he found hope at the last minute and managed to turn his life around.

“There's a purpose for me, I guess,” said Murphy, who is now taking computer science courses at Central Oregon Community College and pursuing a dream of opening up his own computer repair business.

“I'm going to make something of myself now,” he vowed. “I will be one of Bethlehem's success stories.”

Thousands of other baby boomers weren't so lucky, according to a recent report released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 1999 and 2010 the suicide rate for baby boomers — particularly those who are now between the ages of 53 and 63 — increased by almost 50 percent. The report's authors blamed this increase on a series of “economic challenges” and other stresses members of this generation face in the middle part of their lives.

Sadly, it's a trend public health officials have seen in Central Oregon as well.

Out of work

Murphy spent nearly half of his life — 22 years — working for an auto parts store in the Portland metro area. He left to start work as a salesman for an outdoor power equipment business that brought him to Bend in 2006.

“They needed somebody who knew their ways,” Murphy said, explaining that the power equipment business, which he refused to name, opened a store in Central Oregon that year and asked if he would move here to help get it off the ground.

Two years after Murphy moved to Bend, the country would find itself in a recession that proved especially hard for people in his age group. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2.4 million people between the ages of 40 and 64 were out of a job and looking for work when the Great Recession started in December 2007. The number of unemployed boomers climbed to 5.2 million when the recession officially ended in June 2009 and would continue to rise until March 2010 and 6.4 million boomers were out of work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Murphy had been working at the power equipment store for a little more than four years — 8 1/2 if you count the time he spent in Portland — when the number of unemployed boomers reached its peak that spring.

But even with this tenure, Murphy was laid off in August 2010, soon after he had a disagreement with a manager.

“I remember it very well,” said Murphy, who said he bears his former employer no ill will. “I didn't know what to do. ... I've worked for 40 years and I never didn't have a job in my life.”

Finding a job in today's economy would take just about everything Murphy had and prove to be especially hard for a man who had no formal education outside of high school and very little experience working with computers — he didn't even know how to type.

Out of hope

Losing a job can prove to be especially hard for baby boomers, said Chris Clouart, managing director at the Bethlehem Inn.

“For our generation, work defines who you are,” said Clouart, 54. “If you have no work, you have no definition.”

The recession proved especially hard for people like Murphy who may have already been living on the margins and had very little money set aside to catch them when they fell.

Things are even harder when people less than 15 to 20 years away from retirement have to compete with those half their age to get whatever jobs are available.

“If you've been given the choice between a 26-year-old guy and a 50-year-old guy, who are you going to pick?” said Clouart, who can understand that an employer might want to go with a younger candidate because he or she can put in more time on the job.

But rather than see this fact as a problem with the system, he said, unemployed boomers start to take things personally. They start asking themselves, “What's wrong with me?” instead of, “What's wrong with the system?” And that line of questioning leads them to depression.

Murphy spent his savings, sold his possessions, lived cheaply, collected unemployment and went out on seven different job assignments that he received through Workforce Oregon during the time he was looking for work.

He applied for several other positions on his own — including one at a local department store — but still could not find a job.

“Sometimes I'd go to a job site and there wasn't anything I was qualified for; sometimes I was overqualified,” Murphy said. “But I kept saying to myself, 'Someone will hire me. Someone will hire me.'”

Murphy received his last weekly unemployment check for $263 on Dec. 20, 2012. He paid that week's rent at the Rainbow Motel on Northeast Third Street — a place he'd been staying for two months — and missed an extension in the benefits program by a week.

He took his two cats — animals Murphy loved so much he often fed them before he fed himself — to the Humane Society's animal shelter so he could start living on the street.

“I had never been in a situation like that in my life,” Murphy said, looking back on the moment when he finally lost hope. “I didn't have anything. I even had to give up my two cats.”

Researchers who wrote the CDC report listed the recent economic downturn and the pattern of long-term joblessness in its wake as one factor that led to the spike in boomer suicides they recorded between 1999 and 2010.

The downturn hit some boomers especially hard. Many also provided some level of care and support to both their aging parents and their children, who, even if they have college degrees, are struggling to find work in the sluggish economy.

“(The dual caregiver role) causes a great amount of stress,” said Terry Schroeder, who supervises crisis services with Deschutes County Behavioral Health.

Schroeder said this only magnifies the stress people experience in a time of economic hardship. It can be so tough that it exhausts a person's emotional reserves and leads to what he called a “very long spiral” of depression that sometimes ends with suicide.

“Suicide rates have been on the rise over the past few years,” he said, referencing the CDC study and a similar study that found the same pattern in Oregon. “It hasn't been any different for us. ... We aren't immune to this trend.”

Finding help

Murphy shouted greetings to nearly half a dozen people when he climbed out of a pickup truck and walked through the Bethlehem Inn's parking lot Friday afternoon.

“I've come back here to bug you guys again,” Murphy said as he chatted with his friends, caught up on gossip and offered to volunteer at the shelter during an upcoming school break.

But Murphy's mood took on a much more somber tone as he and Clouart climbed the stairs outside the former motel's main building and toward the front door of Room 212.

Clouart open the door so Murphy could look at the bed where he slept from Jan. 8 to June 15. It was Bunk No. 3 — one of six beds inside the old motel room — and Murphy hadn't seen it since he checked out of the homeless shelter.

“This place was good to me when I needed it,” Murphy said as he reached up to the side of his old bed. “But I never want to stay here again.”

Murphy stayed with friends for a couple of nights before he checked out of his room at the Rainbow Motel. He also spent two nights in a storage locker that he paid for in advance and housed the very last of his possessions.

He walked around in a daze the morning after the second night he spent in the storage locker and often thought about the noose he kept in a secure location and the spot where he would hang himself. That morning, Murphy also met the woman who would save his life.

“She walked up to me and said, 'It looks like you are troubled,'” Murphy said of the woman, whom he cannot identify no matter how hard he tries. “If she was sitting over at the table next to me I probably wouldn't recognize her. That's how messed up I was back then.”

Murphy said the woman told him to call Deschutes County Mental Health and see if people there could help him out. After one more night in his storage locker Murphy heeded this woman's advice and spoke with a counselor who helped him find a bed at the Bethlehem Inn.

“He opened up to us very quickly,” Clouart said. Murphy made no secret of the fact he had struggled to find a job until he ran out of money, was severely depressed and thought about killing himself. “He's one of those people we are happy to help.”

According to the shelter's regulations, people from Central Oregon can stay at the Bethlehem Inn for 30 days before a case manager reviews their cases and determines whether they can stay for another 30-day period. People from outside the area can stay for seven days.

Clouart said Murphy volunteered and started helping out at the Bethlehem Inn the second he showed up and quickly became somebody the shelter managers could count on to do any job he had been assigned.

Clouart said this type of relationship helps the person as much as it helps the shelter because he or she gets a sense of purpose or duty that may normally be lacking.

“That kind of turns things around,” he said, explaining that once people get this initial spark of purpose — something replaces the sense of hopelessness they may feel in their lives — they can do just about anything they put their minds to.

In Murphy's case, that long-term goal was going back to school. After lining up a financial aid package from the federal government, Murphy started working on his computer science degree when the current semester at COCC started in May. He's on track to finish his degree in two years, maybe sooner if he pushes it.

Now Murphy shares a two-bedroom condominium on Bend's west side. He likes this neighborhood a little better because it's close to school and he can get around on his bike.

“I'm enjoying life again,” Murphy said, explaining that nothing he has would have been possible without the Bethlehem Inn's help. “And no matter how hard things get, it's OK because I'm going to open my own computer store some day.”

Clouart also enjoys the fact he has been part of Murphy's success and would share in this satisfaction even if his old friend never came by to see him again.

But for the moment, Clouart's attention was also focused on the 55 other people who had signed up to stay at the Bethlehem Inn on Thursday night. He also worries about the boomers who are currently going through the same cycle of depression Murphy emerged from this spring and might also need his help.

“Greg is a thoughtful man,” Clouart said. “But he also knows that he is one of millions.”