NO SHELTER is a monthly series from MLK50 housing reporter Jacob Steimer, interviewing Memphians who either lack access to housing or previously did. Although the numbers are difficult to track, the Community Alliance for the Homeless estimates that on a given night in 2021, about 200 people were unsheltered in Shelby County. The monthly Q&As will introduce readers to neighbors they may not talk to otherwise and, perhaps, create a path to improving the way the city cares for these vulnerable people. It is written with the belief that all people are created equal — whether or not they’re treated that way. The conversations are edited for brevity and clarity.
Sloane Wilke could hardly last a couple hours without using heroin or alcohol back then. Because of sobriety requirements at shelters, she spent 2013-2017 living outside or in abandoned buildings.
Today, the 36-year-old is living in Bartlett, visiting her children often and working a full-time job for the Community Alliance for the Homeless. She’s enjoying bubble baths, writing and donating to a nonprofit in Uganda.
She attributes much of her transformation to an offer of free housing, along with methadone and other medications. She thinks if someone had offered her housing without the requirement of sobriety earlier in her time outside, her addiction wouldn’t have lasted so long.
Because of this, she passionately advocates for “housing first,” a method of addressing homelessness that provides people with permanent housing before helping them with their addictions or joblessness.
This strategy is gaining popularity nationwide, as a growing body of research shows it’s more effective at keeping people housed, healthy and out of jail. While Wilke’s new employer is working to implement the approach in Memphis, it hasn’t been embraced as much as it has been in Charlotte, Houston or San Diego.
Wilke hopes this will change soon. To her, housing is a human right that’s necessary for all other kinds of flourishing.
“(Otherwise), it’s just an endless cycle. Like, how can you have a job if you don’t have transportation and you don’t have a place to stay?” she said. “You got to have all these things for any sort of forward momentum.”
Are you from Memphis?
I was born and raised here. I grew up in East Memphis. I went to Hutchison School. I spent my freshman year at Ole Miss. And then I ended up coming back here and graduated at the U of M in 2009 — I had dual concentrations in political science and English.
What brought you back home from Ole Miss?
My first real love had gotten killed in a car accident. And that was my first time experiencing the loss of a peer. That was just so unexpected; it really hit me very hard.
It was hard to be there because the last voicemail he left me, he was like, “Hey baby, I’m at the stadium, trying to find you.” And I’d pass that stadium every day on the way to class. It got to be too much.
So, you had to come home. That makes total sense. What comes next?
An unplanned pregnancy. There was a little shotgun wedding after that and my son was born. And that was awesome. Things calmed down. Everything was good for about three years. I found myself in the exact same pregnancy situation again. And my husband had the brilliant idea — because we weren’t getting along too well — that we go to California where his family was from, to try to save the marriage. So I agreed to go with him.
We were there and I was about five months pregnant with my daughter, and he kicked me in the stomach. Thank God, everything was okay. She was fine. I was fine. But there had never been any abuse instances like that and it terrified me.
I thought I was doing the right thing by going to the police and I ended up getting my son taken away from me for “failure to protect him from abuse.” My attorney said I was not going to leave the hospital with my baby. So I flew back here when I was 38 weeks pregnant because he said I would have to have my baby in Tennessee and give temporary custody to my parents or it would be a shitstorm back in California. So I did that.
As soon as the State of California found out what I had done, they said I was going to face a child abandonment charge if I didn’t hop on the next flight back there. So I did.
And that’s when your substance abuse began?
I had my own housing through an organization that helped women facing domestic abuse. When I went into my apartment, I had the kids’ rooms set up and neither child there. I mean, I fancy myself a writer, but I don’t even have the words to articulate the feeling inside — just that emptiness and despair. And somebody offered me meth, which was popular out there. I’d never done it. It terrified me, but I was like, why not? And that’s when the hard drugs started.
I can’t imagine what that would be like to have your kid taken from you at this moment when everything is collapsing on you. How were you able to get him back?
The state stretched it out 18 months to the day. They tried to adopt my son out to a family in California. My mom had some political connections from growing up. She worked her connections. My parents put in I don’t know how much money and they finally let my parents adopt my son.
How did you end up losing stable housing?
When I came back here, I told myself meth was something I used in California to get through an awful situation but there was no place for that here. But, you know, there was just so much unprocessed trauma. I said aloud to a friend, “I just wish I could take a magic pill and just forget about all this.” He was like, “Actually, you should try this.” And it was heroin.
I managed to hold onto my job for a few months. I was working at an upscale shoe boutique in East Memphis that I absolutely loved. But it got to the point in my addiction where I was like, I don’t want to work. I’d rather just do drugs. Meanwhile, I guess I should mention, I had a bipolar diagnosis as a teen, so I think that definitely plays into all this.
I ended up living with a boyfriend in his car. Once he wrecked the car, it was like, “Well, I guess we’re outside now.” I left my kids with my parents.
I went from, within six weeks, having a job that I loved to holding up a piece of cardboard and eating out of dumpsters for food.
What do you do these days when you see someone panhandling?
If I have the money, I give it to them. However it helps them, it’s not my place. Whatever helps them put one foot in front of the other.
A good thing I would recommend that anybody could do is just make eye contact, smile. Say, “How are you?” Whatever you do, don’t look past them. I can’t even tell you the times I was out there — it didn’t happen often — when somebody just looked me in the eye and gave me a smile and a wave. That doesn’t cost anything and it can completely make somebody’s day.
That makes sense because, I mean, it was truly terrible out there, right?
I’ve been raped. I’ve been stabbed. I’ve had guns pulled on me. You name it, it happened.
Especially as a female. I would usually have a man with me. But the times I didn’t, it got real scary. Especially because if you’re drinking or using, you may not have your faculties on you 100% and may not realize you’re in a compromising situation.
And then police sometimes can be nice, but sometimes they run you off. And I watched police beat one of my friends for no reason. And as bad as the cold is, it’s probably the least of your worries.
You feel subhuman. People sometimes would drive by and hurl a drink at you and yell, “Get a job!” or “Go f— yourself!”
What do you think the average Memphian doesn’t understand about the experience of homelessness?
It really can happen to anybody. I met families fleeing domestic abuse. I met people that worked at Kroger but didn’t have enough money for housing. “Homeless” isn’t an old man with whiskey sitting under a bridge looking like a hobo.
So in 2017, after multiple other attempts to get sober, detox and methadone work, and you also get the chance to live with your now-partner’s mother in Bartlett. What was that feeling like to be back in stability?
I probably took four bubble baths a day and watched like 10 seasons of multiple shows on every streaming service ever. Like, all that streaming stuff came out when I was on the streets. It was glorious. Every time I was hungry, I could come down and eat something.
Can you describe how you ended up working at Community Alliance for the Homeless?
I had been doing freelance writing. I was kind of toying with the idea of doing something either full time or part time. I just happened to check my email one day, and I saw the ad for Community Alliance. I didn’t have a vehicle, which was one of the stipulations, so I basically just pitched myself as a volunteer. Then an employee there was like, “Well, come on, send in your resume.” And then I sent it in and they asked for an interview. And I got a job offer.
After all the ordeal I’ve been through, I’m glad that I can hopefully use that to make our work more effective.
I had just got beaten so down into the ground mentally from my time being unsheltered. I just felt worthless. I didn’t think I would ever amount to anything. In this job, I feel like I’m really coming back to life.
Any specific moments from the new job you’ve really loved?
We were working at a harm reduction event last month — like needle exchange and Narcan training. And I actually knew a lot of the clients from my time out there. I just thought it was so cool for them to see me looking pleasantly plump and very obviously clean. There are probably very few people who were more addicted and crazier than I was, so if I can get my act together, anybody can.
And your kids still live with your parents but you get to visit pretty often?
My mom passed in 2019, but my kids are in Germantown with my dad. The 10-year-old is a little girly girl. She loves cheerleading and dance and all that stuff. The 13-year-old has discovered girls and is going to parties and stuff. We get to have serious discussions. I try to be very open with them — at an age-appropriate level — about addiction.
Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com
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