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magazine home > archives > spring 2004 > features

The homeless—on any given night, there are as many as 2,000 in the Memphis area. Several U of M alumni take to the front lines to help ease this monumental problem.

Down But Not Out
by Jamie Peters

After living on the streets and a close brush with death from a drug overdose, Keith Orr has jumped on the recovery track with the help of Memphis Union Mission.

For Keith Orr, the 1990s began with a broken heart. By the time they ended, his heart had stopped twice from a drug overdose.

The path from heartache to heart failure began when Orr's wife told him on their fifth-year wedding anniversary that she had filed for divorce and wanted custody of their two young children. Her words blindsided the truck driver. "I had no idea it was coming," he says.

Orr declared bankruptcy. "I quit caring about myself," he says. "I quit caring about everything."

Orr started drinking more heavily and using drugs. At the peak of his usage, Orr was buying 14 pills of a certain narcotic each day. At $20 a pill, it was an expensive habit that eventually cost him his three-bedroom house and car. He started sleeping in front of an employment agency to ensure he received work tickets and money for drugs.

Then Orr began to think about suicide. "Instead of taking a gun and doing it, I was doing it on the installment plan," he says. After one session of drug use, Orr's heart valves clamped shut and he was rushed to the emergency room. His heart stopped twice, but doctors were able to revive him.

During a jail stint for a DUI arrest, Orr decided to change. "I had better things in life to do than being locked up," he says. So he entered the Memphis Union Mission, a program for men struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. Like many other programs for homeless people, this one involves a University of Memphis alumnus.

The many faces of homelessness

Orr is one of an estimated 2,000 homeless people in Memphis and Shelby County, according to figures from Partners for the Homeless and the Greater Memphis Interagency Coalition for the Homeless. This number includes people who are living in transitional housing, emergency shelters or on the street.

The extended absence of a roof, four walls and a bed is a symptom of self-inflicted problems as well as uncontrollable events. Many homeless struggle with mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, chronic diseases or domestic abuse. Combined, these problems act like conspirators that collude to trap their victims in an endless cycle of homelessness. Some homeless people have turned to the streets after losing jobs or homes because they don't have a safety net of friends and family to catch them. As a result of these issues, a one-size-fits-all solution is inadequate.

Answering this call, a couple of nonprofit organizations are pursuing their most extensive housing expansions in recent years. And several U of M alumni are playing key roles in these initiatives.

Friends for Life, which helps people with HIV and AIDS, expected to sign a contract with the city of Memphis in April to use 30 to 35 units of scattered housing throughout the area. The measure addresses a service that is sorely lacking in Memphis: housing for women with HIV or AIDS who have children, says Kim Moss (MS '87), Friends For Life executive director.

Meanwhile, Memphis Union Mission is planning a fund-raising campaign for a new shelter that will house about 25 women and their children and provide a better setting than the current Moriah House. "That's our next big project on the horizon," says Steve Carpenter (BA '96), Memphis Union Mission's development director. The organization plans to kick off an estimated $1.8 million capital campaign for the new building this spring.

Although officials of homeless organizations say Memphis still does not have enough housing services for certain groups such as families, the community has been able to renew existing programs and add some new ones by securing substantial federal funding in recent years.

In 2003 Memphis and Shelby County programs for homeless people received more than $4 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, says Pat Morgan, executive director of Partners for the Homeless. The organization coordinates the community agencies' annual application process for federal funding. The community could potentially receive nearly $4.5 million of federal funding in 2004, Morgan says.

It's all pointed toward Memphis and Shelby County's publicly announced goal of ending homelessness in the area by 2013. It's a utopian ideal, and while there is evidence of agencies making significant steps in the right direction, many gaping holes remain.

"Do we have a multifaceted center or area where people can just walk in? No," says Constance Graham, executive director of the Greater Memphis Interagency Coalition of the Homeless.

But local agencies have made great strides in other areas such as support for the mentally ill, Graham notes.

"Are we all perfect? No," says Graham. "But we continue to fine tune ourselves."

Alumni on the front lines

Most of the general populace's view of homelessness largely is shaped by its distance from it. When glimpsed from cars or on a brisk walk to a restaurant, scenes of the homeless on streets are reduced to images that pass by quickly in a rotating cityscape.

For a number of U of M alumni, interacting with homeless people extends beyond driving or walking past them on their way to work—helping the homeless is their work.

Kim Moss of Friends for Life doesn't even need to look at his clients to know how—and what—they are feeling. He is acutely familiar with the ways in which HIV and AIDS reshape the emotional and psychological contours of those that they afflict. Moss didn't learn this by drawing on years of professional experience and detailed reading—he knows this because he is HIV positive.

"It's ruined my life in some ways," Moss says.

In interacting with clients who share the affliction, Moss takes an approach that is best described as impassioned pragmatism.

In December a mentally ill, homeless woman with AIDS stopped by the Friends For Life office asking for food. She looked worse than the last time Moss had seen her—she had abnormal growths on her hands. "You're going to die," Moss told her.

He gave the woman some items from the food pantry on the condition that she return the next morning to meet with a case manager. The woman agreed. The next morning arrived and she didn't show up. Still, Moss is hopeful that the woman someday will fulfill her promise.

"We could get her disability income and we could get her housed if she would stay put long enough," he says.

But he's also realistic about the prospect of never seeing her woman again.

"She's a free spirit," he says.

Redefining success

Working with the homeless requires its practitioners to continuously redraw the lines that mark progress and success.

In her first year as a counselor at Moriah House, Jackie Jerrolds (BA '93, MS '95) was convinced she wasn't cut out for the job.

"I didn't have any clients graduate," Jerrolds says.

She believed her boss had made a mistake in hiring her. A close friend changed her mind when she asked Jerrolds a key question: "If any of your clients stayed at Moriah just for one day did they learn anything?"


As a counselor at Memphis Union Mission's Moriah House, Jackie Jerrolds (BA '93, MS '95) works with women who are struggling with drug and alcohol problems or abusive situations with men.

"Well, yeah," Jerrolds answered.

"Then you're doing your job," that friend said. "Stop bellyaching."

Nearly five years later, Jerrolds knows she made the right decision to stay.

Case workers often have to grapple with decisions of clients that at times seem to defy rational behavior. Edward Thomas (BA '93), a community outreach case manager for Friends for Life, has encountered multiple instances when homeless people have rejected his efforts to connect them with overnight shelters.

"There's a thing called self-determination," says Thomas, who estimates that about 10 percent of his clients are homeless. "I might think, 'Wow, that's not the option that I would want for that person.' But maybe this person has had some experiences in a shelter that were horrible."

A different kind of household

On a January morning in the kitchen of Memphis Union Mission's Moriah House, one of the women in charge of preparing lunch commiserates over burning the macaroni and cheese. Another woman empties the trash as part of her chores. In another room, a client's daughter writes intently on a sheet of paper. In these moments, the assorted problems that unite these 12 women here are invisible; this scene could be construed as a lunchtime reunion for a group of girlfriends and their eight children.

Cindy, 35, has lived in one of Moriah's four double rooms with her 4-year-old daughter since June, following six weeks in jail and time in other recovery programs because of an addiction to crack cocaine. Her room is located at the end of the hallway that includes 10 single rooms, all of which have private bathrooms and showers. Hordes of stuffed animals sit atop shelves near the bunk beds where Cindy's other daughter, 10, sleeps. This could be a room in a private household.

"The women take ownership of the building," says Beverly Thomas (BS '73), director of Moriah House.

Jerrolds estimates that about 20 percent of the women who stay at Moriah have directly come from homeless situations. Many of these women arrived after being referred by various shelters such as the YWCA. However, if the Moriah program didn't exist, Jerrolds estimates that about 50 percent of its clients would be homeless. That's because these clients include pregnant women who were kicked out of their homes and abused women who have fled violent relationships.

Cindy left her mother's home in early 2003 and lived in her car for about six weeks. During that time she turned to prostitution to support her crack habit. "I was high the whole time," Cindy says. "Sometimes I couldn't even make enough sense of things to talk." After spending time at Moriah and other counseling programs, Cindy has gotten a 20-hour-a-week data entry job. Religion also has come back into her life.

However, Cindy still gets a knot in her stomach when she drives through areas where she used to buy crack for $20. "I know if I ever went back, it'd be the death of me," she says. But Cindy doesn't plan to go back to that life. Because if she did, she would never go back to school, buy a car or watch her children grow up.

"When I leave here I know I'm going to have enough strength to be on my own," Cindy says.

About 70 percent of the women who have been through at least part of the program stay drug free and out of abusive relationships, says Jerrolds. The figures are based on conversations with former clients who have stayed in touch with Moriah counselors. But some ex-clients are never heard from again.

Putting a life back together

After more than 15 months in Memphis Union Mission's recovery program, Orr, 46, now serves as a resident assistant in a transition house. Some of the men at the house talk to him after work at night about their problems. Orr tells them how his faith in God has helped him, in the hope that it will do the same for them.

Orr's full-time job at a local construction company is going well and may soon become permanent. He arrives at work a half-hour to an hour early each morning to attend a Bible study with other employees.

A large picture of Orr's daughter hangs above the desk in his bedroom. It's a reminder of where he's been—and where he hopes to be. His ex-wife won't let Orr speak to his son or his daughter. Maybe she will soon; maybe not. Either way, Orr's faith assures him that it will happen one day.

"That hurts," Orr says. "But I don't worry about it because I know God is going to help me rekindle my relationship with my children because he knows it's important to me. It's what I want."

Orr, like many others, is putting his life back together one piece at a time. In a process where improvement is measured in small increments, U of M alumni are assisting the homeless every step of the way.


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