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.
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
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
"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
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."
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
For a number of U of M alumni, interacting with homeless
people extends beyond driving or walking past them on their
way to workhelping the homeless is their work.
Kim Moss of Friends for Life doesn't even need to look at
his clients to know howand whatthey 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 readinghe 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 hershe had abnormal
growths on her hands. "You're going to die," Moss
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.
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
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?"
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.
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."
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
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.
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
A large picture of Orr's daughter hangs above the desk in
his bedroom. It's a reminder of where he's beenand 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.