By Pat Morgan
In 1983, I answered the call from my church’s priest, whose compassion for homeless people and his work to help them in Memphis (and nationally) defies description. The scene when I walked into Calvary Episcopal Church’s elegant “great hall,” was stunning, but not because of the massive chandelier or the red velvet drapes at the windows. Seated in the solid oak chairs along the wall were about a dozen ragged, forlorn, and sickly men. I had been a real estate broker, banker, and elected official in the county government previously. So, not much prepared me for the hardship and illnesses I was about to encounter.
I’d seen a lot of poverty in my life, lived some of it when I was a child, and worked to help end some of it as an adult. I knew more than I’d ever wanted to know about addiction, having learned some of the most important parts (too little and too late) at Al Anon. I knew a little about brain illness, commonly referred to as mental illness, and nothing at all about the mental health system. Although nothing works to end homelessness without housing, it became painfully clear to me that homelessness is about a LOT more than the lack of affordable housing. Serious brain illness can contribute to homelessness. When people are unable to meet ordinary demands of life and cannot attend to their basic biological needs due to illness, loss of housing can ensue.
For the next five years, I spent almost every weekday afternoon talking with, and later assessing, the needs of our visitors while helping to develop, and then directing, always as a volunteer, Calvary’s “Street Ministry.” During those years, hundreds of people, primarily men, walked, staggered, stormed, slipped, or were so intoxicated or psychotic that they half-floated through our doors and into our hearts. At least a third were mentally ill and more than a few were actively psychotic. We listened, learned, provided vouchers for shelter, personal needs, bus tickets, or prescriptions when there were no other sources. While I cared deeply about all of them, a few, usually those who were clearly mentally ill, stole my heart and then broke it, and would finally send me on a decades-long battle to secure for them the inpatient treatment they desperately needed. They didn't necessarily want it, and rarely, if ever, received it.
The director of the state's acute care mental hospital in Memphis had finally tired of my impassioned (or desperate, heartfelt, consistent) appeals, and told me what I didn't want to hear. "Pat,” he said, “You know they’re committable and I know they’re committable, but I can't say it, because if I were to commit them, the stark reality is I simply don't have enough beds.” He wasn’t just talking about furniture. He needed staff.
I needed to know why he couldn’t get what he needed. It would take decades, but along the way I’d learn about why our mental health system, locally, statewide, and nationally, was so broken. Thankfully, two of Memphis’ mental health centers began sending us crisis specialists to help our visitors, who’d acknowledge that they were suicidal or homicidal, get the three-day inpatient treatment they desperately needed in the new crisis unit, with follow-up services. They were remarkable, and I learned a lot, but not enough.
When Alepeachie, my all-time-favorite homeless person and only "success story" was found dead in the apartment the crisis specialists had found for him, I “lost it.” Alepeachie had slept in a series of cardboard boxes near a downtown church for years and it had taken months (and a lot of KFC) for me to gain his trust, which was easily transferred to the crisis specialists. I'd seen him a few days before and he'd looked good, but when I asked him how he was doing, he'd said "I don't hear the voices telling me to kill myself anymore, but my life is so empty I still want to kill myself." I’d meant to call the crisis specialists but had simply forgotten by the time I got home. This was before smartphones had been invented.
Devastated at his funeral, I vowed that I’d never stop trying to help people with serious brain illnesses. That promise would lead me back to college (at age 48) and then on to Washington, D.C., for a semester in American Politics. My new career path led to a presidential appointment as a program specialist in the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. Returning to Memphis some years later, I continued working on homelessness, with a special focus on those with serious brain illnesses.
I am now retired, but remain a passionate and dedicated advocate for people with serious brain disorders who captured my heart so many years ago. And I vow to continue for as long as I am able. I am honored to serve as an advisor and advocate for the National Shattering Silence Coalition.
Pat Morgan has worked to help homeless people, especially those with serious brain disorders (SBD), commonly referred to as serious mental illnesses (SMI), for decades. Her experience includes serving for five years as the unpaid director of a church-based "Street Ministry" to homeless people, seven years as a presidential appointee to the staff of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness during the Clinton Administration, and ten years as the director of Partners for the Homeless in Memphis, TN. Upon her retirement, her volunteer work focused on homeless people with SBD through the Room in the Inn program in Memphis. She is the author of two books, “The Concrete Killing Fields,” and “We Hardly Knew Them, How Homeless Mentally Ill People Became Collateral Damage.” A relentless advocate, both books include multiple stories about her work with homeless people suffering from SBD and call for major changes in our mental healthcare system to meet their needs.