From sunshine to darkest night: homeless woman’s sad saga

Betty BeanFeature, Fountain City

It’s hard to remember, from this late-December vantage point, that we recently lived through one of the hottest autumns ever. Ninety-degree afternoons were common halfway into October, but the heat didn’t seem to bother the woman who spent her days sitting in the blazing sun in the middle of Adair Park.


She was there every day, leaving only when park security ran her off at night. She said her name was Lisa, although she told different stories to different people.

She was blond, slender and looked younger than her true age, which wouldn’t be discovered until several months later. She said she was spending her nights with a guy named Larry but didn’t really like going there.

The social media buzz started with a Sept. 16 post on a neighborhood website:

“Hi, there’s a girl that’s homeless living in Adair Park for a month or so. She seems to be slightly special needs. She said her father died and the apartment management kicked her out of the house. She’s there with a bicycle. She sits in the park all day. She says she goes to some church that lets her shower and gives her a bag lunch but has no housing. She doesn’t seem to be an addict or anything like that. She’s very child like …”

The post drew 182 responses over the next six weeks, like this one on Sept. 27 from a kind-hearted Inskip couple who tried to help her:

“Went by this morning … she said (her) brother came into town last evening and hopes he will come back to park for her today. I took coffee and an apple this morning about 8:45. Last evening when I stopped by she had some food she said her brother had brought her. Will check back with her this afternoon to see if he got her.”

She kept talking about her brother, assuring those who came to check on her that he’d be here soon in a truck to haul her off to safety. She said she didn’t like being talked about on social media but appreciated the gifts of food and clothing.

By Oct. 1, some were tiring of the conversation:

“From recent posts it sounds like she is able to get food for herself and several people have helped with a chair and tarps. In light of the fact that she’s given several different stories, a likely false name and has asked not to be the source of an internet conversation maybe what she wants is for us to leave her alone and give her some privacy. I think we’ve all helped as best we can for now.”

Then “Lisa” started talking about an aunt in Texas who was going to come and take her home.

The next day or so, her bicycle disappeared, and she said she’d had a wreck and a man had volunteered to repair it. As time passed, she mentioned someone who was going to buy her a bus ticket to California where she didn’t know anybody, had no housing, but planned to sleep on the beach.

Meanwhile, her bike showed up looking good as new.

Argument continued online about her mental health. One guy kept insisting that she was not mentally ill and hinted that those who wanted to help her were busybodies. Those who agreed with him described her as a hippie chick wanting to commune with nature and suggested that the do-gooders should leave her alone. Others said she didn’t want to join the crowd “under the bridge.”

Those who said she was OK were refuted by a Lincoln Park resident who has some experience with the mentally ill:

“I’ve been following this since my comment, and I can pretty much guarantee that she is mentally ill. I used to work at Lakeshore (Eastern State Psych. Hospital then). This was in the ’70s when it was large and full. Closing it signed the death warrants for many people and increased homelessness in Knoxville. It is a myth that any person with a mental illness can be managed on an outpatient basis. It’s like closing dialysis clinics and telling people with kidney failure to drink more water.”

By mid-October, the weather was cooling down. KPD did a welfare check and took her to the behavioral health center, where she stayed for three days, was evaluated, but refused the option of a bed at the mission, despite the wishes of those who wanted to help her.

“I have followed this post from the beginning and stopped by the park a few times. I hope and pray that the system doesn’t turn her back out to the streets. Kudos to all of you for being so kind and humane to this woman.”

The conversation petered out over the next few weeks, leaving many to wonder what had become of her as the weeks went by and winter set in.

The Friday before Christmas there was a traffic accident on Broadway, a short block from Adair Drive, where “Lisa” had spent the early fall squatting in the park. It was cold, rainy and dark, even though it was reported at 6:24 a.m. Someone who said she witnessed the scene described the victim as a pedestrian; a woman with blond hair. There was some dispute as to whether she had survived.

Officer Ronnie Bradley arrived at 6:28. He said the victim had been standing in the middle of the right-hand northbound lane, facing oncoming traffic. The driver of a 2012 Chevrolet slammed on her brakes in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid hitting the pedestrian, who was tossed up on the hood of Driver No. 1’s car, where she crashed into the windshield, bounced off the hood and was run over by Driver No. 2, who was traveling north in the left-hand lane in a 2008 BMW and had no chance to hit his brakes.

Some witnesses who posted online said the victim was pushing a bicycle, although there was no mention of that in the police report, which identified her as Deborah J. Bailey, age 50 and homeless.

This is the name “Lisa” had given people she’d gotten to know best. She was pronounced dead on the scene. It was winter solstice – the longest, darkest night of the year.

(Note: This story has been modified to reflect the correct time of death.)

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