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Ivy League doctor's now homeless

There is a rhythm to Shannon Morgan's distressing life, a sad cycle that begins each morning when she submits her name to a bed lottery at a shelter.

By day, she wanders the streets of San Francisco toting a 40-pound knapsack on her back, hauling her belongings on a luggage cart.Most days, she takes a bus to Fisherman's Wharf, where she has lunch for $1.25 at Aquatic Park. She checks on her storage space, stuffed chock-full with papers, clothes and food.

"I'm a pack rat," she says with a laugh.

If she's promised a bed, Morgan gets in line at the shelter at 3 p.m. Lights go out at 10. "I just want to wake up because the night has been so horrible," she says, and when she wakes, she signs up for the lottery.

And the cycle begins again.

Shannon Morgan was not born to this life. Forty years ago, she had two talented children, a husband who was a surgeon, a carriage house near Boston and an Ivy League medical degree.

But then her life went awry. Today, at age 67, she is homeless.

She is not alone on the streets. A growing number of elderly Americans - many of them women - have been left homeless as rents have risen and housing has become scarce in the country's big cities.

Morgan is hopeful. "I'm very much a loner," she says. "But I'm a Capricorn and I'm very grounded. Even if I'm living in a treehouse, it'd be my home."

The fact remains, she doesn't even have a treehouse.

The daughter of surgeons, Morgan led a privileged childhood, filled with Arabian ponies, cotillions and ballet lessons. Summers were spent sailing in upstate New York and Denmark.

In college, she majored in biology and joined a sorority, then went to work as a teacher and dean before attending medical school at Cornell.

Two days after graduating in 1957, she married a classmate and settled in Brookline, Mass. She bore a son, then a daughter. She completed her residency in ophthalmology.

Along the way, she biked across the south of France, studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, attended a ball thrown for Queen Elizabeth and hitchhiked from Norway to Greece.

"If I have to use one word for the things I enjoy most, it would be `adventure,' " Morgan says.

Parties at Morgan's home were always special - real candles on a 20-foot Christmas tree or an authentic Greek meal, recalls Elizabeth Cady, a former neighbor.

"Things were never done in a very average way. Always above average," says Cady, who now sits on the board of directors for the Committee to End Elder Homelessness in Boston. "She was always going to (maintain) very high standards at whatever she did. I think that can burn you out."

Indeed, a dark side shadowed Morgan's blessed life.

As a child, she was dyslexic but drove herself to excel.

"I had to prove I could climb those mountains," she says.

She speaks of a demanding, distant mother, who one day served her pet lamb, "Lambie," for Sunday dinner.

"That, in essence, is what happens in my life," she says. "Nothing is simple in my life."

When her children were teen-agers, Morgan learned her husband was having an affair. The divorce took five years, and Morgan says she got almost nothing from the settlement.

"It was shattering," she recalls. "I was totally wiped out. I was always stepping aside - I gave up my career so he could be chief resident."

Soon after, her daughter started showing signs of mental instability. It was familiar territory. Morgan's sister also suffered from a mental illness, schizophrenia.

She moved with her daughter to California. And then, in the 1980s, suffered a series of strokes that forced her retirement. She started forgetting things, had trouble with the smallest of tasks. She eventually lost her apartment. There was no pension.

For a year, she lived "under a pine tree" in Bolinas, a small coastal town north of San Francisco. Other years, she worked as a caregiver in exchange for housing. Two years ago, Morgan says, an elderly man she was caring for threw her out, casting her clothes onto the street.

She thinks that's when she became homeless, but says, "I'm not sure when it exactly happened. I can't remember."

"We are seeing more women in general, senior women in particular," says Paul Boden, director of the Coalition for Homelessness in San Francisco. "It's inhumane. Shelters have become a de facto level of housing for a growing group of people."

Legislation enacted during the Reagan era provided for emergency care but did not offer permanent housing for the homeless.

And budget cuts have closed many of the places that cared for the mentally ill, says Donna Townsend, executive director of the Committee to End Elder Homelessness, which has opened a 40-unit home in Boston for low-income senior citizens.

"What we've found is that if you are elder, female and homeless, it's more likely that you're mentally ill. And these women tend to be fiercely independent," she says.

Morgan is a case in point. She dismisses suggestions that she live with her son, a landscape architect in Washington, D.C., or her baby brother, an engineer in New Jersey. She hates the cold and does not wish to intrude on their busy lives.

Her son says that his mother is independent and does as she pleases.

Diminutive, with a shining halo of silver hair and clear blue eyes, Morgan seems fragile.

She has needs that go unmet at temporary shelters. She has asthma, chemical allergies, a bad knee and sleep apnea, a condition in which she stops breathing a dozen times a night.

The machine that treats her apnea must be plugged into an outlet, which poses a problem at the shelter. She turns down beds that are too far from electricity, and twice since March she's ended up on the streets when not even a cot is available.

Morgan would be guaranteed a bed if she sought counseling for mental illness. But that would mean handing over two-thirds of her Social Security payment - and losing her storage space - to take advice from someone, she points out, who has less medical education than she does.

"That's a big farce. The smart ones know that," she says.

And she shakes her head at homeless hotels.

"Apartment is a dirty word to me. It's just not in my vocabulary," Morgan says. "I'd rather live under a pine tree, or in a treehouse, or in a tower. That's my fantasy."

But on a recent Monday, Morgan learns the shelter does not have space for her. As she stands outside the building, wondering where she will sleep that night, she is seized by chest pains.

Rushed to the hospital, she undergoes a series of tests and is told doctors want her nearby so they can monitor her health.

For a week, she is guaranteed a room in a hotel where the rooms reek of cigarettes and urine. But it is a place to sleep in peace - until she returns to the streets.