Sarah stands for a portrait during a visit to Manna House in May. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

NO SHELTER is a regular series from MLK50 housing reporter Jacob Steimer, interviewing Memphians who are unhoused. 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 Memphis/Shelby County. The regular 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. They are written with the belief that all people are created equal — whether or not they’re treated that way. In this installment, the woman interviewed remains anonymous due to the possibility of retaliation against her. 

Sarah has battled substance addictions since she was 15.  

She was sober for the four years leading up to 2020, which she credits to a Shelby County Public Defender jail diversion program, the Jericho Project, and a faith-based rehabilitation program, Women Ablaze Ministries. But then she moved to Midtown, which she calls “the drug haven,” and she gave into temptation.

After relapsing, Sarah maintained stable housing until last September, when she was kicked out of her apartment because someone else had overdosed in it. Since then, she’s mostly lived outside with her fiancé. And that hasn’t made sobriety any easier. 

The local homeless system isn’t set up to give Sarah much of a chance against addiction, she says. She doesn’t understand why homeless services are so concentrated in Midtown and Downtown as opposed to the suburbs, where drugs would be harder to access. 

Specifically, she’d love a soup kitchen located in Bartlett or Cordova, so she could move there and be closer to her 8-year-old daughter.

Sarah, who has lived in Memphis for almost her entire life, said she has bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder.

She is hesitant to go back to rehab because she’s skeptical she’d learn anything she didn’t learn during previous trips. Plus, her fiancé was recently arrested for violation of his parole while being verbally abusive to her, and she worries a rehab program wouldn’t allow her to visit him while he’s locked up. 

He’s hit her recently as well, but she’s forgiven him for that. 

“This was like a one-time deal,” she said. “We were both really messed up at the time. … He is such a good dude.”

Marquiepta Odom, a survivor of domestic violence and executive director of the YWCA Greater Memphis, said it is common for women to forgive their abusers for the first half-dozen instances of violence. While Sarah didn’t elaborate on her PTSD, Odom said almost all abused women have experienced traumas such as molestation or abuse as kids and are ashamed of themselves. They are also usually being manipulated through threats, intimidation, emotional abuse or other measures

“A lot of people (think), ‘She can just get out,’” Odom said. “It’s just not that easy. … What they consider as love and connection with that person keeps drawing them back.”

People with borderline personality disorder often work hard to avoid abandonment, according to the National Institute of Health

Odom said anyone experiencing domestic violence should seek counseling and help from organizations such as hers. The YWCA, which doesn’t require proof of abuse, provides short-term housing, counseling and assistance accessing many other forms of aid. 

Sarah, though, is still hopeful her and her fiancé will be able to sober up and build the “white picket fence” life she craves.

So, you’ve been without stable housing since September. What did you do during the winter?

A lot of the times, (my fiancé and I) were outside. We had, you know, body heat. Or, there’s some apartments on Belvedere that have a little laundry room. We would do that a lot. And we stayed with friends when we could. We’d get hotel rooms if we could. Our parents helped us pay for a couple of nights in a room. But a lot of times all we had was each other.

Obviously, every part of it’s hard, but what’s been the hardest part of not having stable housing?

Our favorite part of our relationship is cuddling in the bed and having peaceful sleep. That comfort zone of a bed and sleep is very important. I haven’t had a lot of sleep.

What keeps you going?

Him and our kids. He’s got two grandkids and a daughter, and I’ve got two daughters. We try to think about the future and what it’s going to be like after this.

She begins to cry.

Sarah’s sobriety was interrupted in 2020 when a move put her in closer proximity to old habits.  Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

What do you think it’s going to take to get to the “after this”?

It’s going to take something bigger than me, definitely.  He and I might have to, when he gets out of jail, separate for a minute. He may have to go to his mom’s, and I may have to go to a shelter. And it’s going to take us totally axing off drugs. I’m trying to do that right now. I got to get a job. I’m not a felon or anything, but it’s hard to get a job when you don’t have clothes or a shower. 

What do you want most in life?

Normalcy. I want the white picket fence. I want him and our kids. I don’t want nothing special. 

How old are your kids?

18 and 8. 

Is the 8-year-old with your parents?

She’s with her father. She lives in the depths of Bartlett. And I cannot get up there. Buses don’t run up there. I loved her enough to not bring her into this. 

If the city were going to decide to help people without housing more, what would you like to see them do?

I’ve never been treated like such a subhuman individual until I became homeless. I just think that educating people more on homelessness — that everybody that is homeless is not a junkie or a prostitute. We are people that have fallen into hard times, and it is a rabbit hole. You cannot get out of it without assistance.

We’re people too. We’re not all out burglarizing or robbing. We’re people that fell into a hard time.

What are you able to do to relieve stress or have fun?

We’ll both go to water. There’s a couple places around here that have fountains and stuff, and we’ll go sit there and meditate. Any kind of nature, where it doesn’t look like it’s the city, we’ll go to and sit and have a picnic and relax. 

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


This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

Got a story idea, a tip or feedback? Send an email to info@mlk50.com.