My name is Libba Phillips, and the story of Outpost for Hope began over 20 years ago when my sister Ashley disappeared. She was struggling with bipolar disorder and drug addiction when she vanished from a life on the streets. I was from a 'relatively typical' family and never thought my life was going to begin such a journey.
When Ashley went missing in the late 90's, my family did what most families would do. We appealed to authorities to file a missing persons report. It seemed simple enough. Ashley was missing. For the next four years, the request for a missing persons report was denied. We searched for Ashley on our own.
We began the difficult process of searching for Ashley with only a handful of handmade flyers. There was no cadre of volunteers, combing the streets with flashlights; no candlelight vigils glowed in the night skies, and no reporters flashed Ashley's picture in the news. No one seemed to care about a missing homeless woman who appeared to be choosing to live on the streets. And to others, she was perceived as nothing more than a drug addict whose disappearance was not deemed worthy of an official investigation.
I documented what I experienced as we searched homeless shelters and met with countless officials. My family pleaded with law enforcement agents for help and looked at hundreds of images of unidentified remains. Each time I said, "No. That's not Ashley," but my heart bled as I knew these lifeless bodies were the sisters/daughters/friends of someone.
I began to realize that if Ashley was not listed as missing, the odds of her ever being found and helped, if she indeed was still alive and lost somewhere on the streets among the homeless, were slim at best. The odds of her body being identified if she was dead were even lower.
Outpost for Hope started as a place for me to log my information and to help others who faced the same roadblocks as my family and I faced. I also began volunteering with The Doe Network in 2001, an organization who assists law enforcement to connect missing persons cases with John/Jane Doe cases. My fellow "online searching sleuths" were the only ones who understood the disparity between someone who was officially reported as a missing person and someone who was lost but not officially reported as such. Were the real number of people who were missing reported by law enforcement in a database, the number of missing persons would skyrocket from 100,000 to as many as 2 million.
Ashley was no longer missing. She was now part of the "missing, missing" a voiceless group, numbering in the millions that law enforcement ignored and left unreported. People didn't understand why or how a homeless woman could be missing. It was appalling to me and my family that she was only thought of as "another crazy person on the streets" who didn't deserve help when Ashley was so clearly endangered and at risk for harm.
If people really understood what mental illness looked like, the world of homelessness and helpfulness would be different. Sadly, people still continue to look through the eyes of judgment and ignorance, not compassion.
As my family and I continued our search, we started to share our story with the media. Marquita Plomer Alcartardo wrote an in-depth article about Ashley and Outpost for Hope in 2002, ultimately defining the mission of the organization. Her persistent efforts helped my family and I to finally get an official missing persons report filed on Ashley, four years after our search began.
Over the course of the next decade - we gained first hand experience as to the struggles that so many other families go through. We began to understand the 'revolving door' of mental illness and homelessness, and Outpost for Hope has helped thousands of people navigate the system of finding "missing, missing" persons. Through my personal experience, I also uncovered and defined the most vulnerable, but hidden population of what I call 'the kids off the grid' who are the easiest targets for exploitation, child pornography, and sex trafficking. Most of these children society does not even know exists. But predators do.
So many more lives can be saved when the right actions are taken without delay, and the right policies, treatment, and support is in place for families in crisis and their lost loved ones. We hope you'll help us to make a difference.
Libba Phillips, Founder of Outpost for Hope