Street Life

A report from the city’s “concrete killing fields.”

| April 10, 2014

Pat Morgan doesn't know how a Memphis man named John Marshall, age 65, died in November 1987. But she knows this:

A bulldozer operator at a city dump discovered Marshall's body. Which means Marshall had been collected from one of the city's trash bins, where perhaps he'd sought warmth against the cold. And perhaps he was already dead (from hypothermia?) when a sanitation truck emptied the contents of that bin, compacted the contents, and drove to the dump. Reports at the time listed the following items found on Marshall's remains: two coats, three pairs of pants, and 24 cents.

Morgan didn't know Marshall personally, and none of the street people she asked knew him. None of those serving the city's homeless had known him either. But if Marshall was indeed "invisible," he was also "in plain sight" — among the homeless on the streets of Memphis.

Morgan writes of those men and women in The Concrete Killing Fields (MileHigh Press), her moving, first-person account of the years she spent as a volunteer, then as unpaid director/developer of the Street Ministry at Calvary Episcopal Church in downtown Memphis. She went into that ministry a "do-gooder" in search of what she calls the "warm fuzzies": that feeling you get when you're publicly helping the less fortunate when you yourself are fortunate enough to live in an apartment several stories above the city and earning a good living as a real estate broker.

The warm fuzzies, Morgan quickly learned, only go so far. Not when you're faced with a sometimes difficult population often suffering from alcoholism, drug addiction, or psychiatric disorders. And not when you're trying your best to coordinate what help there is among the city's shelters and agencies. Complicating matters are the personal issues you've maybe brought to your job as a volunteer. Among them, in Morgan's case, two failed marriages and a background in sore need of some serious healing.

As Morgan writes in The Concrete Killing Fields, her childhood in Turrell, Arkansas, was marked by two life-changing events: the day her mother boarded a Greyhound bus to go shopping in Memphis and chose never to return to her husband and four children and, years after, the night Morgan's father, a police deputy in Turrell, was shot and killed.

Morgan was to learn that her mother, in Florida, later leapt to her death from the passenger side of a moving truck, the incident no accident but a probable suicide. No question, however, about the time Morgan's mother called the family in an attempt to reconnect. In no uncertain terms, Morgan, by phone, turned her mother away. But by that time, Morgan was on her way to morphing into what she calls "a fixer" — "the pleaser, the peace-maker, little Miss Goody-Two-Shoes. That was me."

And that was Morgan, in early adulthood, running for and winning a seat on the quorum court of the Crittenden County Commission and running for, but losing, her races for Arkansas state representative and county judge. And that was Morgan too, a self-described policy wonk and political junkie by the time Time magazine named her one of "20 Outstanding College Juniors in America" — a "rising star."

And Morgan was: the mother of three sons but also a student at Rhodes College enrolled in the school's adult degree program. Age wasn't an issue for Morgan and certainly wasn't when, at age 50, she served as an intern in the Washington office of then-Senator Al Gore. The issue of homelessness in America stayed with her, though. So too another issue: the election of Bill Clinton to the presidency, a campaign Morgan eagerly joined and enthusiastically recalls. She went on to serve in the Clinton administration and was eventually appointed to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness until the day it hit her: Researching and crafting reports was work Morgan was excellent at, but what she missed most during her eight years in Washington were her grown sons and the "trenches": interacting with and advocating for the homeless on the streets of Memphis.

"I didn't know it," Morgan writes, "but going home would eventually help me find the peace that had eluded me for most of my life," — a peace she arrived at by visiting her mother's grave; by erecting a headstone for the sister Morgan never knew; and by visiting the grave of a Memphis man who used to sleep on a piece of cardboard under a bush — a man who'd changed Morgan's life: Alepeachie Broadnax.

Even in retirement in 2011 (after acting as executive director of Partners for the Homeless), Morgan does what she can to advocate for the homeless. Last year, for example, she wrote grant applications for A Step Ahead Foundation, which helps to prevent teen pregnancy (a major factor leading to homelessness) in Memphis and Shelby County. She also continues to fight for improvements in meeting the mental-health needs of the homeless, in Memphis and nationally.

And now, with The Concrete Killing Fields, Morgan takes readers to street level and in one case highway level. The route Morgan took when she was a "rising star"? A road into Washington honoring an early Supreme Court chief justice: John Marshall Highway.

It's been a year since The Bridge hit the streets. That's the name of the city's first "street" newspaper, launched by students at Rhodes College a year ago to highlight the hardships of Memphis' homeless population and to give the homeless a voice — and steady income. Contributing homeless individuals are paid to share their stories and artwork. Homeless individuals are also paid to act as trained and certified street vendors, who keep all profits from sales of the paper.

According to Caroline Ponseti, a Rhodes student and Bridge co-founder (along with James Ekenstedt and Evan Katz), the paper, to date, has put $25,000 directly into the hands of Memphis' homeless and provided them with a sustainable monthly income.

On Monday, April 14th, The Bridge will celebrate its one-year anniversary with an event on the Rhodes College campus. On the program: remarks by the paper's founders, a reading by one of the paper's contributing poets, and an address by one of the paper's vendors.

The celebration will take place outside Glassell Hall from 5 to 7 p.m. For more information about the event, contact Caroline Ponsenti at caroline@thememphisbridge.com. To learn more about The Bridge, go to thememphisbridge.com.

book_TheConcreteKillingFields.jpg

Tags

Add a comment