Mental illness builds wall between homeless, home

Betty BeanInside 640, Knox Scene

This is my third column in four weeks about Debra Bailey (Dec. 28 here; Jan. 4 here.) That’s a lot, considering I met her only once and cannot claim to have known her. I was introduced to her via social media on Sept. 16, and her story – which ended when she was hit by not one, but two, cars and killed while trying to cross North Broadway on foot on the morning of Dec. 21 – has haunted me ever since, and I’ve reached out in every direction I can think of to learn her story.


I first heard about her via this notification on a local neighborhood web page:

“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. If anyone knows any resources for her maybe they could help her. … It’s not good for her to be there all day and I’m now seeing human poop in the park etc., which isn’t healthy for children and pets in the park. Thanks.”

This began a long online conversation that didn’t evolve much beyond worry, concern and argument over whether or not she was mentally ill. Some brought her food and clothing and attempted to talk her into going to a shelter. This entry was from the couple who made the most effort to help her (note: she called herself Lisa most of the time):

Oct. 8: “Got back from park. Met a helping woman that used to bring her food, that called CAC for her (while standing next to Lisa) and then handed Lisa the phone (since CAC requires the woman herself to give her full name) so CAC would come pick her up and take her to a shelter. Lisa refused to give her name to them on the phone so this helping woman stopped bringing her food, which if enough of us stop, will encourage Lisa to seek shelter at night with the rain and colder weather coming. I gave Lisa my first name and cell if she ever changes her mind and wants to go to a shelter but told her until then I’m not enabling her. … I think someone was right that said she is like a hippy chick and has depended on people to give food and money.”

Two days later, “Lisa” was visited by KPD Officer Thomas Turner, who warned her that she couldn’t stay in the park after sundown and offered to drive her to a shelter or to the Behavioral Health Urgent Care Center for evaluation. She declined his offer and told him that she lived on Avondale Avenue and would walk home after dark. Turner noted that he knew her to be homeless but took no further action until the following evening, when he once again found her in the park at closing time and made the decision to take her to the BHUCC even though he didn’t have grounds to charge her with any of the offenses that would have made her eligible for evaluation there – Public Intoxication, Criminal Trespass, Disorderly Conduct, Resisting Arrest, Underage Consumption, Public Indecency, Obstructing Sidewalk, Abuse of 911 Calls, Aggressive Panhandling.

But here’s the catch: Only those who are willing to voluntarily stay and receive treatment have a chance at getting help. Those who don’t consent are turned back onto the street.

And “Lisa,” whom Turner identified as Debra Bailey (age 50, blue eyes, 5-7, 125 pounds), did not consent.

After she was taken to the BHUCC, online interest in Bailey’s plight waned, and the next time most of us heard about her was that she had been killed on Dec. 21 as a result of being hit by two vehicles while she was trying to cross North Broadway. I wasn’t able to find out any additional information before I wrote a column about her on Dec. 28, and then a week later presenting state Sen. Richard Briggs’ ideas about reforming government responses to mental health and homelessness.

Briggs noted that inpatient mental health treatment facilities in Knoxville have disappeared with the closing of St. Mary’s Tower Four.

Statistics bear out Briggs’ contention that mental illness and homelessness are conjoined issues. The “Dashboard Report,” an at-a-glance informational tool examining the issue of homelessness and the performance of Knoxville homeless service providers, lists mental illness as the No. 1 cause of homelessness.

The last piece of the Debra Bailey puzzle fell into place on Jan. 12 when I heard from a family member who was horrified to read that she’d been living in Adair Park and confirmed that Bailey was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic who refused to take medication and often heard voices in her head. Bailey had gone to live with her father in the Whittle Springs area after her husband died. Avondale Avenue, where she told Officer Turner that she lived, is in that neighborhood.

Bailey’s family lost contact with her when she disappeared after her father died early last September. The family looked for her in the Mission District on Broadway but found no trace of her and figured she’d left town, as she had done on previous occasions. She had traveled as far away as California and the Gulf Coast on her own in the past, so the family didn’t think there was any use filing a missing-persons report.

“She would disappear for months and then call and show back up, go back out, then call again and come back. We had no idea she was still in town when we looked for her in the areas we thought she’d be and she wasn’t there and we didn’t hear from her. … We tried to get her help, but as you may know, unless someone is a danger to themselves or others there is nothing the police or hospitals will do unless she agrees to get help.”

Attorney James Corcoran said there are huge problems with civil commitment now that inpatient psychiatric care is out of favor and has become almost unavailable – despite being an effective tool for dealing with schizophrenia.

“Under current law, civil commitment requires two independent doctors to have the same opinion, and in general, two doctors won’t recommend doing inpatient care first when the standard is to do outpatient care first,” he said.

Meanwhile, Bailey’s family is devastated, the relative said, and they have young children whom they want to shield until they are better able to understand what has happened, therefore nobody wishes to comment on the record.

When asked what I could say on their behalf, she told me this:

“You can say she did have a family that loves her very much and we did the best we could. And you can say what I said about the homeless and mental illness.”

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