Community Mourns Homeless Woman

Kathleen Garlington would turn on a dime.

One moment, she was intelligent and thoughtful. An accomplished pianist, she loved music and art and animals.

The next, she would be screaming at the top of her lungs, insisting spies were out to hijack her mind.

Garlington’s severe mental illness ultimately resulted in homelessness. Numerous efforts from family members and the broader Gaithersburg community fell short when she passed away recently at age 61 because of complications related to high blood pressure. Her funeral took place April 3 at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Parish on Clopper Road.

Along with a few other places in and around Kentlands—an area not exactly accustomed to face-to-face encounters with the homeless—St. Rose had become a prominent way station in Garlington’s transient existence. For about a year before she died, Garlington would spend hours lingering in the chapel, visiting with staff members and borrowing books (always promptly returned) from the small church library.

And then there were the bad days.

“She would go back and forth so easily,” said Sherry Moitoza, who interacted frequently with Garlington as the church’s director of social concerns. “You could have an incredible conversation with her but instantaneously she could switch into a paranoid state and become very delusional.”

According to the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless, 981 people experience homelessness on any given day in the county. In a 2008 survey from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 48 percent of city governments cited mental illness as a key cause of homelessness.

Garlington’s story illustrates the vicious loop of mental illness, homelessness and the difficulties that can arise when well-meaning people try to intervene. In a nutshell, providing a home to the homeless is nowhere near as simple as it might initially seem.

“It was really a sad kind of thing,” said Shellie Williams, director of the Arts Barn in Kentlands, which Garlington visited several times in the final weeks of her life. “She obviously needed help but she was incredibly and fiercely independent. … It made everybody feel helpless. So many people wanted to help her, but we were unable to do so.”

According to Moitoza, Garlington suffered from a “mixed soup” of disorders that included paranoid and delusional behaviors. But the official medical diagnosis was outdated, maybe decades old, and Garlington’s fear of doctors—and of signing her name to any document—impeded a new one.

“She never wanted to stay in any of the homeless shelters because of her paranoia, thinking people would steal her identity,” Moitoza said. “For her it was not necessarily a choice, because she would never admit she actually had mental illness. But for her to live out on the streets or in the woods was better to her than living in a confined space with people she didn’t know. … It was getting her to sign something, she thought it was spies.”

Moitoza reached out to the city’s homeless services division and, eventually, to the county government and various nonprofits. Garlington’s family, it turned out, were also well aware of the situation and wanted Garlington to get better, even if they didn’t have the expertise or capacity to personally take her in.

All were willing to help, but the vicious loop came acutely into play. It all came to a head about a week before she died.

Shelter is critical not only for safety and well-being, but because it can lessen the stress placed on a person because of homelessness—which can exacerbate mental illness and a raft of semi-related health problems. Despite the difficulty she had in trusting others and signing documents, Garlington received clearance to move into an apartment. At the same time, the waters in her life had become extraordinarily choppy.

“One day she was yelling and screaming inside the chapel,” Moitoza said. “Someone came in to get her and she chased them out. She was about to get the keys to an apartment, where she would live alone. … We were so close.”

Mental health services—or rather, the lack thereof—have become and may remain a hot-button topic on the nation’s political landscape. But even in places like Gaithersburg and Montgomery County, where solid services exist for the homeless and others with mental illness, people can still slip through your fingers.

“Suddenly she started appearing in our building,” Williams said. “And then, suddenly, she was gone.”