Fort Worth woman's plight illustrates how mental illness poses barriers to helping the homeless

FORT WORTH -- Karen Shearhart slept on a bed of crumpled newspaper and plywood, but there was no convincing her that she needed a new home.

A lot of people tried -- for years. Police officers, homeless outreach teams and mission workers reached out to the 56-year-old woman, who lived in a thicket under the shadow of the Purina dog food plant near downtown Fort Worth.

Shearhart was kindly but guarded, and clearly had a mental illness, acquaintances say. She resisted efforts to move her from the patch of ground where she lived alone for perhaps a decade.

"We begged and pleaded for her to let us help her," said Otis Thornton, Fort Worth's homelessness program director. "Her illness made it difficult to be very well-connected with people. She wanted to stay out there."

On Aug. 23, a Catholic Charities street outreach team found Shearhart dead in her camp, where she had collapsed. Those who knew her speculate that the 100-degree August heat killed Shearhart, who had heart disease and regularly wore a wool hat and thick flannel shirts in the summer.

Shearhart's lonely death illustrates the formidable challenges posed by homeless people whose mental conditions make them unwilling -- or unable -- to accept help, advocates for the homeless say.

One of every four homeless people likely suffers some severe form of mental illness, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

"No one in their right mind would think living like that is best for them," said the Rev. Page Hines of the First Street Methodist Mission, where Shearhart got sack lunches. "But you can't make someone get help; you can't make them take medication. This is a segment of the homeless population that could get left behind."

'She was ... special'

In her later years, Shearhart did not resemble the clear-eyed girl in her 1970 yearbook photo at Western Hills High School, where she graduated. Years outside in the elements had taken their toll.

She rarely, if ever, cut her hair. She tucked it all into a large ball under a wool stocking cap. She was a distinctive figure who could be seen downtown lugging garbage bags -- sometimes five or six of them -- filled with clothes.

No one knows exactly when she staked out her spot near the Purina factory. D. Crim, formerly the neighborhood police officer in that area, said he met Shearhart at her camp in the early 2000s.

"I kept seeing her walk into the trees, so finally I followed her," he said. "She was very isolated. When she was sleeping, she slept on trash bags filled with paper and covered herself with plywood. You wouldn't know she was there until you lifted up the wood."

Despite her mental condition, Shearhart could interact with others, he said.

"She never talked out of her head. She could sit and have a normal conversation with you," Crim said.

Shearhart took great pride in her campsite, particularly the trees. She arranged stones as a form of crude landscaping. She dried her clothing on tree limbs, strung Christmas decorations and posted handmade keep-out signs.

"We don't have many women who are campers, so she was always special to us," Hines said. "Everyone worried about her, so we all kept track of how long it had been since we saw her last."

Shearhart was aware of the risks of her lifestyle. Fort Worth police officer Donna Eldridge once escorted three members of a local church to Shearhart's camp so they could give her a lantern and a weather radio, which Shearhart accepted.

But she wanted nothing to do with a tent.

"She told us she was afraid someone would roll her up in it and beat her to death," Eldridge said.

Shearhart, a prolific coupon cutter, was grateful to people she trusted. She often gave them envelopes stuffed with food coupons she had cut out of newspaper inserts, sometimes with recipes scribbled in the margin.

"You knew you were in Karen's good graces if she gave you coupons," Hines said. "That's how she gave back to people she cared about."

Rejecting help

Shearhart rejected most efforts to help her.

In 2008, the city enacted a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness, exponentially increasing services to help the homeless find more stable housing. But Shearhart listened dispassionately to the assistance options.

"She had become sort of fascinated with becoming the owner of the property where she camped," Thornton said. "She talked about asserting her squatter rights. She talked once about moving a storage container onto the property to live in."

Officials with the Salvation Army visited the campsite, but Shearhart told them that she had had bad experiences in shelters.

Eventually, officials accepted that Shearhart had no intention of leaving. They didn't consider her a danger to anyone, and she caused no problems.

"It's very difficult when what is in someone's best interest collides with their rights as a person to decide how they live," said Luke Robertson, lead case manager for a Catholic Charities outreach team that visited Shearhart every few weeks.

"It's a situation people in our field face all the time. We had to respect that Karen had the right to live how she wanted to live," Robertson said.

Others tried to explore Shearhart's past, hoping to find relatives. Eldridge said Shearhart reacted unhappily to personal questions.

"If she thought for a second you were crossing a line and getting too personal, she told you it was her private business and to leave," Eldridge said. "She would get mad at you for a while, then you could eventually go back and visit her again.

"You wondered what happened to her and how she ended up there."

'70s counterculture

Public records and relatives offer a glimpse into her past.

After high school, Shearhart first attended Tarrant County College, then called Tarrant County Junior College. Her oldest sister, Vivian Lewis, who lives in Arizona, said Shearhart later came about six credits short of a degree from the University of North Texas in Denton.

Lewis described Shearhart as part of the "counterculture of the 1970s." Their was father was strict and authoritative. Father and daughter had a serious falling-out, and Shearhart moved out of the home. They never spoke much again, said Mary Shearhart, Shearhart's stepmother, who lives in Florida.

Shearhart's birth mother had mental illness, Lewis said. Shearheart began to show signs of the condition in her mid-20s.

"Her behavior just changed, that's the only way I can describe it," Lewis said. "She made a choice to be on the streets. We couldn't force her to do anything else."

Over the years, Lewis said, she mailed gloves and warm hats to a post office box that Shearhart kept in Fort Worth. She chose items in camouflage patterns so her sister could blend into the brush and not be bothered by other homeless people.

Her father, Cecil Shearhart, who had Alzheimer's disease, died in January at age 90, Mary Shearhart said. She said she mailed news of his death to the post office box but never heard back.

At one point in the 1990s, Shearhart was married and had a son, Lewis said. The son was taken away and placed in state custody when he was young. That greatly affected Shearhart's psyche, she said.

Over the years, Karen Shearhart occasionally sent letters to Mary Shearhart that made little sense. In one of the last letters she mailed, Shearhart claimed that she and her son had reunited and bought a house together.

"Clearly, I knew that wasn't true," Mary Shearhart said. "It was just her mental illness."

Devastating discovery

In the days before Shearhart's death, the Catholic Charities homeless outreach team and volunteers at First Street Mission Methodist Church grew concerned that Shearhart hadn't picked up lunch since July 28.

On Aug. 23, the outreach team followed the overgrown path full of stickers and brush into her camp. Her socks and a pair of pants hung from tree branches, where Shearhart left them to dry. They passed one of her large, hand-printed signs that read: "This is not a public campground. It is though a home with no walls like there are churches that have no walls."

They found her body near her camp, her walking stick beside her.

Robertson, the team's case manager, said the discovery devastated team members.

They have asked themselves whether there was more they could have done to help Shearhart.

"There was a tremendous sense of the loneliness of the death," Robertson said.

"She died with no one else around her. My hope is that we can learn from it, bring some sense to it and figure out how to better help all the other Karens out there."

Alex Branch, 817-390-7689