Home at Last

Drug abuse and mental illness plague many of Memphis' homeless. Here's how two individuals made the hard journey to a fresh start.

Pat Morgan will never forget a fellow named Crackerjack*. "I learned more about addiction from him than I ever read in a book," says the executive director of Partners for the Homeless. "He could pour more alcohol down his gullet than anybody I've ever seen." When she asked him why, he said, "I'll tell you, Pat. It's like the worst itch you ever had in your life. And the itch goes from the bottom of your feet to the top of your head, and there ain't nothing you won't do to scratch it."

Crackerjack made a little cash picking up cans and selling them, pushing his cart around downtown. One day he was found dead on the riverbluffs with his cart tipped over beside him. "He was about 35 going on 100," says Morgan. "I still think of him."

She also remembers Joe*, a mentally ill man who'd lost all the fingers on his hands to frostbite: "I'd try to gain his trust. You have to do that if you ever want to help them, but it's no small feat for an unmedicated schizophrenic." It took her three years, but she finally got Joe off the streets and into a state mental hospital.

Crackerjack and Joe have been among the 1,800 or so homeless individuals found in Memphis and Shelby County on any given day on the streets, in emergency shelters, or in transitional housing facilities. That number — an average over the last five years — is based on a count done each January by the Greater Memphis Interagency Coalition for the Homeless and by Partners for the Homeless, which coordinates research and services for this population.

Dogging many homeless individuals is a history of mental illness, substance abuse, or both — a troubling combination that, as Morgan says, "makes it difficult for these people to learn how to trust."

Difficult, yes, but not impossible. Many — including two we interviewed — do form bonds, accept a helping hand, and are eager to move closer to independence. They'll probably always need medication and financial assistance, but they no longer live in a shelter. Thanks to several programs, agencies, and their own determination, they now have a place to call home. (*Names have been changed.) >>>

"I'd do anything for a rock ."

Around 1980, in her hometown of St. Louis, peer pressure drove Rosemary Sutton to light up the crack pipe. "I'd do anything for a rock," she recalls, "including prostitute myself. I was the dumbest 'ho' in America." Her addiction sent Sutton on a downward spiral made worse by an abusive relationship. Today, however, she looks back with gratitude for people who helped lift her from a living hell.

The slender 47-year-old mother of two sons can't blame a miserable childhood for bad choices she made as an adult. Her dad worked steadily as a laborer in construction, while her mom stayed home and raised eight children. "We were happy," she says. "Most kids on the block didn't have a father. My folks were strict but they were loving." Her mom enjoyed an occasional beer. "She could make a six-pack last a month," smiles Sutton. "I stole a can of her Falstaff once when I was 14. I got whupped for that."

In 1977, Sutton dropped out of high school and had a baby the following year. She later worked as a nursing assistant in a care home and also as a telemarketer, but weekends were dedicated to her habit. She was married briefly, but when her husband was murdered in 1989, her addiction hit new highs.

Upon moving to Memphis in the early 1990s, Sutton's life went from bad to worse when she met a man "who introduced me to his fist," she says. "At first he seemed okay and in front of other people he was fine," she recalls, "but I feared for my life every day." She describes being dragged down the street and pummeled in the stomach when she was seven months pregnant. "I didn't know if I could say 'how you doing' without being slapped or cursed. I'd be eating and he'd knock the table over."

While pregnant with her second child, Sutton kicked her crack addiction, but soon the craving kicked back stronger than before. Her older son, who was living with Sutton's sister during those years, begged her to quit. Instead, she'd steal from him to buy more rocks.

A turning point came on July 5, 2003, when she looked in the mirror and felt cold all over. "I didn't see myself," she says. "I saw somebody but it wasn't me. I saw a monster with bloodshot eyes. And thin as a stick. That made me realize I hadn't looked at myself in a long time." Soon Sutton entered a rehab program.

"I got off the crack and the beer," she says, "but I went back to that man. This time when he slapped me, I got a knife and tried to kill him. I wanted him to die, to feel the pain."

If Sutton wanted to kill her tormentor — she spent 11 days in jail and was on probation for a year — she also entertained thoughts of killing herself. "I was gonna take pills, or walk out in the middle of the street. Nobody really knew what I was going through. I'd call my sisters and brothers and they had no idea I wanted to take my life, leave everything behind. I cried a lot but when people saw me I always smiled. One lady saw through me. She said, 'Girl, you are hurting so much you can't do nothing but laugh.' And she was telling the truth."

In May 2007 Sutton's abuser threatened to blow her brains out. She called the police, and an officer escorted her to a location where her son picked her up. Over the next 10 days, in a deep depression, with only the clothes on her back, she sought help from a handful of friends and relatives, going from one home to another. Then she was admitted to a local mental hospital, where she was stabilized and diagnosed with chronic depression. A doctor there assured Sutton they would do everything in their power to keep her from returning to an abusive situation.

In June 2007, exhausted, lonely, her hair falling out, and her spirits at rock bottom, she went to live at the Salvation Army's Single Women's Lodge on Jackson Avenue, where she stayed in a dorm with 20 other women. "They gave me a bed to sleep in! They gave me food!" Sutton says with warmth and wonder. She stayed there four months, during which time she walked several miles to visit her younger son who was staying with his father. Fearful of the man's wrath, Sutton says: "All I could do was hug my son and keep going."

While living in the dorm, Sutton would see and hear things that no one else did — lights late at night, a man in a cape and hat, high heels tripping down a hallway. Her goals while at the shelter were to see her psychiatrist regularly and try to find a job. With the hallucinations, the latter seemed unlikely.

Though medications helped Sutton, she still felt low. She remembers seeing other women move out of the dorm; some were going to a place called the Phoenix Project in Midtown, designed for homeless people with a disabling mental illness. "I was so depressed. Seeing lights at night that nobody else saw, all these people moving out, and I figured I'm stuck here. It must be crack doing that to my mind. I know God is real and that He didn't have anything to do with my being in this state. It was my choice, smoking that crack."

"I ran buck naked through the place. I kissed the door."

Finally one morning, Sutton got word that she too would be moving to her own apartment. When she laid eyes on her new home — a combination living room and kitchen, with one bedroom and bathroom provided by Behavioral Health Initiatives — Sutton raced from front to back of the small dwelling thanking God. "I was crying and everybody was crying with me."

That night, she put sheets on the windows and closed the blinds. "Then I ran buck naked through the place. I kissed the door. I turned the key in the lock and said, 'Open, close, open, close.' It was the best feeling on earth."

Sutton draws food stamps and is working with a lawyer to apply for disability income. She's in a vocational rehab program trying to get a job. Most days a friend at the Salvation Army picks her up and takes her to the shelter on Jackson, where Sutton helps clean and tidy the place. She also "gives back" by serving a Thanksgiving dinner to women now living at the Single Women's Lodge. "I've done that since 2007. This year they've already put out a list saying, 'Sign up for dinner at Rosemary's.' That's awesome!"

Among her goals are to get her younger son back — she currently has joint custody of him — and to open a soup kitchen. "I love feeding people because so many people fed me," she says.

Despite her progress after getting off drugs and leaving her abuser, Sutton still struggles with bouts of depression. She hesitates, her voice choking, then points around the cheerful room. "See these windows and blinds open? This is not me. They're usually closed tight. I don't altogether trust people yet." And though medication helps stabilize her moods, and quiet the voices in her head, Sutton still feels what she calls spirits. "I can lie on the bed and feel them sitting beside me. One time I was cooking, and I felt a breeze move over my shoulder, then I heard a music box turn on. That came from St. Louis and hasn't played in years."

While every day for Sutton is a work in progress, she emphasizes this fact: "There's help in Memphis for people like me. Do what you're supposed to do, follow instructions, take care of your business and leave other people alone. Also take your medications. If I could get crack when snow was up to my knees, I can walk to get my medications."

Above all she's glad to refute what her tormentor told her. "He'd make fun of me when I'd talk about leaving, say, 'Ain't nobody gonna help you. You worthless.'" But God said, 'Unh-unh, that's not true.' And I'm gonna make it. I wouldn't change my life for nothing in the world."

"One day I'd had enough."

His troubles seemed to start after he graduated from Wooddale High School, joined the Navy, and after three months, decided military life wasn't for him. "They let me come home on an administrative discharge," says 43-year-old John Gilchrease, sitting at a table at the Memphis Union Mission. "I should have stayed with it but I had an attitude."

Indeed he was diagnosed while in the service as a paranoid schizophrenic — a condition that doesn't mix well with the alcohol and drugs he tried later. "I ain't gonna lie," says Gilchrease. "I got pretty wild at times."

Wild enough to set fire to his mother's living room and get charged with arson when he was about 20. "I was mad about the Navy, guilty about it, didn't have friends, had too much idle time. I did two years at the Shelby County Jail."

For awhile, Gilchrease worked for a janitorial service, and later in security. He took a correspondence course through a detective school in Washington, D.C., and was disappointed when the firm wouldn't give him a promotion for his extra schooling. He was medicated for his schizophrenia but still smoking marijuana, and says, "I didn't feel good in my head. Heard a lot of negative talk." Meanwhile he rented a room in a house where other tenants let dishes and garbage pile up, and sometimes partied till dawn.

"I'd come home and have to clean up somebody's mess in the kitchen, sweep and mop the floors," he recalls. "They'd eat my food, stuff I'd bought. And they'd stay up at nights, playing loud music and smoking their drugs. One day I'd had enough. I just started shooting."

Blasts from a 12-gauge shotgun, which he'd acquired from a relative, injured his landlady and one of her friends. In the fracas, Gilchrease was shot too, by his landlady's companion, in the shoulder, back, and side of his head. Soon he was behind bars again, this time for 13 years, on the charge of attempted first-degree murder. While there, on the advice of an old family friend, he called his landlady and offered his apology. "She accepted it," he recalls, "and I'm truly remorseful. I've settled down a lot since then."

In 2006, when his prison term was up, Gilchrease was referred as a "model prisoner" to the Memphis Union Mission on Poplar near Danny Thomas. One of 10 children, he says, "I didn't want to go back and live with any of my family. I thought they might be afraid of me."

Gilchrease himself suffered some jitters during his first nights at the shelter's men's dorm. "I didn't know the guys, and I'd wonder, 'What's he doing here?' I was kinda scared, just like they probably were of me. Plus I'd been locked up so long, I didn't know how to act being free. It took some adjusting."

However, over the past three years he has gone through the mission's Christian-based programs, first staying in the Poplar facility, then moving to Calvary Colony near Frayser, where he helped maintain the property, and then to the mission's transitional housing unit in Midtown.In September he "graduated" to his own apartment at the newly constructed complex North Hill Woods in Frayser, provided by Comprehensive Counseling Network. As rent, Gilchrease will pay 30 percent of his disability income.

Asked how it feels to have a place all his own after years of bunking with other men, Gilchrease smiles and shows a ring etched on each side with an eagle. "I feel like a baby bird being weaned from his parents. I feel like I've earned my wings, that I can pretty much fly on my own."

His only regret? Not hearing from his family. "A lady from St. Mary's church would bring postcards and we'd mail them. I've been sending them for a while. I don't get anything back. I sure would like to hear from them."

Linked to a New Life

People in shelters aren't the only ones who need help finding transitional or permanent housing. Those leaving prison may have nowhere to go, and the mentally ill are especially at risk. Enter the Jericho Project, a jail diversion program for inmates whose illness is stabilized.

Consider Kim Dunlap, who has bipolar disorder. She turned to powder cocaine to "treat" her mood swings, first just on weekends, then every day. Smiling sadly now at her skewed logic, she says, "I didn't want the stigma of a mental illness and I didn't want to be on meds. So I did drugs. How crazy is that?"

Her craving turned this hard-working, churchgoing wife and mother of two boys to a woman who landed on the street for not paying her rent, and who spent every cent of her husband's salary as they moved from apartment to hotels to the homes of friends. "Then I started stealing," she says, "forging checks I'd take from the very people who took me in."

In December 2004, when her mother was sick with pneumonia and her kids should have been looking forward to Christmas, the law caught up with Dunlap. She was taken to jail with six charges ranging from forgery to theft of more than $10,000. Over the next couple of months she shared a 10x6 cell with three different women. One had shot a man. Another poured gasoline on her husband and set him on fire. Yet another stabbed a police officer in the head. Dunlap, who by then was on medication for her illness, looked around and thought, What on earth am I doing here?

Thanks to the Jericho Project, Dunlap was given an alternative to jail time. She met with Stephen Bush, supervising attorney in the public defender's office who, along with Mayor A C Wharton, helped launch this program that's been a model for other cities. Bush presented her case and her individualized treatment plan to prosecutors. After careful deliberation, a judge approved it.

To be eligible, a client must have a serious mental illness that's stable with medication, and must be willing to continue treatment as a condition of release. "The average person we link through Jericho has a diagnosis like schizophrenia or bipolar, cocaine use, and 15 prior arrests," says Bush. "If we don't break this cycle, these individuals will be released with no bridge meds, no Medicaid. . . . And even the most motivated person with a mental illness can't navigate the public health system quickly enough to stay well for long. So there's a public safety argument there," says Bush, who adds that Jericho is funded mainly by federal and state dollars.

Before clients like Dunlap can leave jail, their treatment plans must provide a safe place to live, as well as such services as outpatient treatment, medication, case management, transportation, and continuing supervision. For the next 14 months after her release, Dunlap appeared in court once a week to have her case reviewed. Today she works for the Frayser Mental Health Center.

"The whole experience opened major doors for me," says Dunlap. "I could have done at least 10 years in jail. The Jericho Project saved my life."

Bush sees it as "good lawyering." He tells prosecutors to challenge anything that doesn't smell right. "But if clients are willing to take meds and participate in plans to help them recover," he adds, "let's give them an incentive to continue treatment. And ultimately help them regain their freedom." — MS

Hope for the Hardcore

 On many days, summer or winter, motorists down Eastmoreland will see Walter*. On this side street in the Medical Center, the 30ish man with a sweet, cheerful face sometimes stretches himself across the steel rail overlooking the interstate below. Other times he sits propped against the concrete wall, surrounded by belongings stuffed in plastic bags. Asked if he needs anything, he smiles and says no. Asked where he lives, he points vaguely to the south. Usually, regardless of the weather, he wears a red toboggan pulled over his ears.

Though we don't know his full circumstances, Walter is probably among those June Averyt would like to help. She runs Door of Hope, funded by city and federal money and private donations. Located in an old midtown home, Door of Hope provides housing and other services to the homeless, including those with mental illness. Among Averyt's charges is Bob*, who lived for decades at Crump Stadium, and Floyd*, who dwelt for years in a tent behind a gas station. Averyt keeps their medications and their money; both draw around $600 in disability income. "People we work with have trouble fitting into the system," she explains. "Maybe they get help from a caseworker but not enough for the level they need. Most are on meds [for various mental disorders]. We don't dispense the meds, but we keep them so they won't get stolen. Our main goal is to give these individuals a safe place to sleep, to get them housed and stay housed."

Floyd, Bob, and three others each have a room at Door of Hope. Perhaps 20 more come in several days a week for a light snack, or simply to sit on the patio, smoking and talking. Some take a shower or get a ride to see their doctor. Several participate in therapeutic writing programs and other activities.

But many out there never "hit the system," says Averyt. "Those you see on the corner will accept food and money but nothing else." Those are the ones on park benches, under overpasses, in church doorways. Sometimes they'll eat at soup kitchens or stay in shelters. And Averyt doesn't tire of seeking them out. They may be bipolar, which affects their moods, or schizophrenic, which distorts their thinking. "My secret desire," says Averyt, "is for a psychiatrist to do outreach on the street."

Beatrice Kimmons runs the Hospitality Hub, funded by Calvary Episcopal Church and other donors. The Hub helps homeless guests with job searches, and provides them access to computers, phones, transportation, and other services. "The person June is willing to work with are those on the park benches," says Kimmons. "You definitely have to build a relationship with them, respect their comfort zone. Some have been institutionalized so long they think that will happen again. When a person tells us they want to refer an individual with mental illness to us, we say, 'Just tell them they can come here to get a cup of coffee.' We don't want to scare them off."

Kimmons sees the "park bench" population growing. And she echoes Averyt's desire for a street psychiatrist. "If we had one who could go out on a daily basis in a mobile [clinic], we could reach more of these people." She talks of kind souls who'll call and say, "I've been dropping off water or talking to this person on the street corner. Do you think you could come around and try to help them?"

To get that phone call, and then be able to send a psychiatrist or caseworker to the scene — "that kind of networking will enable us to reach more of these chronically mentally ill," says Kimmons.

She recalls a young woman who several years ago slept in an alleyway behind The Peabody. "A caseworker would leave little care packages," says Kimmons, "and gradually got the woman to come out and have a conversation with him." Slowly but surely, a bond developed between the two. "We found out she was a graduate [of a local college] and had lost contact with her family. The caseworker got her comfortable enough to take her in for an evaluation. She was schizophrenic and was put on medication. Since then she's been reunited with her family."

For the Walters, Bobs, and Floyds of this world, Averyt and Kimmons will keep trying. "If we can get them treatment," says Averyt, "there's hope for them." — MS

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