Room in the Library

If you’re a librarian, this rose is for you. 

“Brenda” was waiting for me inside Cossitt Library, Memphis’ small but historic downtown library where she, and other homeless people often spend their days, knowing they’ll be safe, accepted,and treated just the same as other patrons. (That she was waiting for me may not mean much to most people, but in my experience, keeping an appointment is pretty remarkable for a homeless woman with untreated paranoid schizophrenia who spends her nights in an oversize wheelchair under a bus stop.) Memphis is sorely lacking emergency shelter for women, street outreach, and housing. It does not lack libraries or dedicated, competent, compassionate librarians who often go the extra mile for their more vulnerable patrons, homeless and housed.

For several months, “Brenda” had slept at various churches, including mine, through the Room in the Inn program. Unfortunately, she’d become so psychotic and disruptive that the churches couldn’t accommodate her any longer. I’d still tried to engage her (with food and bus tickets), had found her sitting in her wheelchair outside the library the day before, and asked if she would let me help her get off the streets. “Yes,” she said,(surprising me) and then agreed with me that one needn’t be ashamed of having a disease. She even listened as I described some of the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia.

The first thing she said to me the next morning was “I have it. I looked up the symptoms.” Pointing at an empty corner, she said, “I can see those men standing over there and I can tell they’re talking about me, but you can’t see them because they’re not really there!” It was a major breakthrough. “Are you willing to go to the Crisis Stabilization Unit (CSU) for a few days to stabilize on the meds you need and then go into a group home when you’re discharged (which I’d already lined up), I asked? “Yes,” she replied. Quietly ecstatic, I called the police non-emergency number, asked them to send an officer from the Crisis Intervention Team, and waited. Two young female officers showed up about an hour later.  

“We can’t take her in just because she’s homeless and has a mental illness,” one said. “I know,” I replied, rather testily. 

You feel like harming yourself?” she asked Sheila. “No, I don’t feel like harming myself,” she replied, rather testily.

“You feel like harming somebody else? asked the other one. “Yeah,” said Sheila, even more testily, “I feel like harming a lot of people.” 

“Let’s go,said the officers, and wheeled her out of the library.

(Brenda had said the “magic words” and I hadn’t even told her what to say!)

(As always, there is LOTS more to this story, but as this is written, she is still safely housed.)

Thank you, librarians, all over America, for opening your hearts and others’ minds to your library’s most vulnerable patrons, homeless or housed.

Not Dead Yet!

“I’m not dead yet!” she’d remind us, sometimes rather forcefully….

And then she was gone, way too soon, leaving us with holes in our hearts and a huge hole in the heart of the homelessness “system.”

June AverytIn a packed church service that honored Dr. June Mann Averyt’s life and phenomenal work in ending homelessness for so many people there were almost as many chuckles as there were tears. Most of us had our favorite “June” stories that always brought a chuckle (and more than a few of us had felt our “grumpy Mother Teresa’s” wrath if we didn’t agree with her on an issue or if we got in her way.) But that’s not why there weren’t as many tears. Some of us had already shed a lot of tears during the months in which she fought—and ultimately lost—her battle with cancer. But even then the tears weren’t always for her. Our admiration for the courage and grace she showed didn’t leave quite as much time for us to contemplate what we knew was coming.

Our tears were often for the people she worried about and offered daily prayers for on her christian-1316206__180Facebook page. One-line prayers that said as much about June as the people she prayed for. Prayers for people who lacked warm beds. Prayers for people whose fingers and toes hurt. Prayers for people who were dying without support. And, every day, snippets of gratitude for ordinary things that we take for granted–hot water for a bath, food we like, friends and family. 

Then she was gone, at 62, leaving a huge hole in our hearts, our homelessness “system,” and in our city. But her spirit, the spirit of the homelessness system, and the Outreach, Housing and Community program that she founded are alive and well and will go on.

Rest in peace, June. Your spirit isn’t dead yet!