Saving Mary Cody: One woman's efforts change everything for homeless woman

photo Mary Cody laughs with Nancy Rus after Rus fixed her hair in her Holiday Inn Express hotel room. Rus has been helping Cody, whom she found homeless and ill in Chattanooga.

When Nancy Rus first saw Mary Cody, the woman was slumped, face down on a Market Street park bench.

Her arms hung limp, and a filthy, stainless steel walker stood beside her. Plastic bags, stuffed with urine-soaked clothing and blankets, bulged on the sidewalk.

People walked past. But Nancy thought the woman might be somebody's mother.

So the 64-year-old former Chicago organizational psychologist who retired in Chattanooga paused and started talking to the stringy-haired woman who called herself Mary.

"I couldn't just walk on by," Nancy said.

The woman was 54 and alone and called herself "a walking miracle, saved by Jesus Christ." She said she'd had her head "cracked open" and become partially paralyzed as a child when her father threw her against a wall. She'd been evicted months ago from Patten Towers, apartments for the disabled and poor on the corner of Market and 11th streets downtown. She was barred from the restaurants nearby. Even the Community Kitchen didn't want her.

Mary slept on the low window ledge of the Christian Science Building most Chattanoogans know as the Pickle Barrel building.

On the street, she said, she had been robbed and raped.

Nancy had wondered if the woman had Alzheimer's, but she soon realized Mary was probably mentally retarded.

Mary had been turned away from nearly every social service help system Chattanooga has to offer.

They wrote her off as someone who couldn't be helped.

"People would tell me, 'Oh, everybody knows Mary,'" Nancy said. "They would tell me, 'She's a drunk. Or she goes off. Or she wants to live on the streets.'"

But Nancy kept going back to talk and listen to Mary, and she would eventually find there was truth to most of what Mary said.

"This is America. We treat dogs better than this," Nancy said.

photo Mary Cody looks at photos with sisters Marlene Kondolojy, center, and Diane Ginsberg Friday at Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute. Cody was placed in the facility for evaluation after an emotional breakdown. The sisters had not known where Cody was since 1989.

Americans spent about $2.9 billion on more than 20 federal programs to target homelessness in 2009. Nearly $20 million of that went to Tennessee, and more than $700,000 went to Chattanooga.

Here, people are encouraged to help the homeless in a hands-off way.

Downtowners, for a time, were asked to toss coins into an "art of change" meter and let United Way disperse the money to the needy.

Street preachers have been encouraged to take their sandwiches and sermons to the homeless only at the Farmers Market near the Community Kitchen.

City officials say money breeds panhandling.

So it's little wonder that while everybody knows Mary, few have really looked at her, much less the whole of her medical and mental history, even while she has been in and out of social service agencies and hospitals in Chattanooga for nearly 20 years.

Nancy would spend thousands of dollars of her own money and nearly every waking hour of her life for more than two months trying to untangle Mary's mysteries.

On that July evening when she first met Mary, all Nancy knew was that she couldn't just walk away.

"That could be me in a few years," she said.

"The truth is, I did this for me. I did it to save myself."

photo Mary Cody stands on the sidewalk near the Pickle Barrel before going in to eat with Nancy Rus.

Not long after meeting Mary that Friday night, Nancy returned to the spot. She watched Mary and waited day after day.

Eventually, Nancy gave her money and took her food, asked if there was anything else she needed.

"I don't need nobody," Mary would say. "I'm God's walking miracle."

Finally Nancy gained a modicum of Mary's trust -- enough to get her in the car for a trip to the Chattanooga Crisis Center.

Nancy left her there, thinking she had done her good deed, but within a few hours, crisis center officials called to tell Nancy they were sending Mary to Erlanger hospital. She couldn't stay in a room at the crisis center because she was incontinent and on a walker -- too much liability, Nancy was told.

Nancy then assumed Erlanger would take responsibility for her.

But Erlanger called her at 4 a.m. to come pick Mary up.

"Pick her up?" Nancy replied. "What am I supposed to do with her? I'm not going to take her back to the street."

There was nothing they could do for her, they said.

Health records across the city said Mary had a "history of alcoholism," but alcohol was not found in blood tests. To test Mary, Nancy asked her if she wanted a drink, but the answer was always no.

So Nancy refused to put Mary back out on the street. The hospital finally agreed to get her a taxi to the Community Kitchen.

That afternoon when Nancy went there to check on Mary, workers said they hadn't seen her. In fact, they told her, Mary was banned from the kitchen.

When Nancy finally found Mary, she was again sitting on a bench on Market Street.

photo Mary Cody, left, and Nancy Rus, center, talk with Mary Simons at the the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition to see if they can get some assistance for Cody.

Mary has frequent seizures. She lost much of the use of her left hand and can barely raise her left arm. When she walks, she has the unsteady gait of someone with a limb several inches shorter than the other.

She can't speak clearly, and is blind in one eye.

Her IQ is 51. She has the reading ability of a third-grader, but the comprehension of a second-grader. Like a preschooler, she sometimes is irrationally irritated. She can be easily manipulated and confused.

Mary spent her childhood poor in rural Vermont, one of 11 children.

When she was 16 months old, her father threw her on the floor, according to records from Vermont State Hospital.

The fall left her partially paralyzed on one side. At 12, she started having convulsions.

"[My family] said I only had half a brain," she told Nancy.

Later, her father was convicted of molesting Mary and her sister, Elaine, who also was mentally disabled.

In the following years, Mary and Elaine were moved among asylums, juvenile homes and institutions.

But in 1989, Elaine got out of an institution and checked Mary out of the facility she was in. What was supposed to be an outing turned into a disappearance.

Elaine later told the family she put Mary out of her car on the street. The family never heard from Mary again and didn't know how she ended up in Chattanooga. They didn't even know if she was alive.

The social service agencies here knew none of that history. What bits and pieces of it Mary remembered and told them were largely discounted.

Now Mary is always afraid.

"People come by and rob me all the time," Mary said.

photo Mary Cody loves to draw, and draws many pictures for Nancy Rus. Cody recites a long list of items that she can draw.

Nancy was once a high school dropout who later obtained double degrees and a doctorate.

In Chicago, she had worked as an executive at Motorola and managed her own consulting firm. She retired early to nurse a body wracked by fibromyalgia, chronic pain and fatigue.

For much of her life, she was a woman consumed with setting and meeting goals. In 1987, prepping for a National Network of Women in Sales seminar, she told a Chicago Tribune reporter that "passion is more than just wanting something. It's the compulsion, the obsession to achieve your goal despite roadblocks or objections."

She pictured a goal to help Mary and then became a woman obsessed.

She checked the homeless woman into the Downtown Days Inn. She bought her clothes. She took her out to eat.

She took her to a doctor who prescribed seizure medication. She took Mary to a foot doctor, who treated her infected toes and toenails. She got Mary a haircut and a manicure.

With the attention, Mary did seem different. She began to wipe her mouth, and to say please and thank you. She grew rested and healthy and steady enough on her feet again to put aside her walker and hobble like a toddler.

Mary would hum Dolly Parton songs and listen to gospel music on the MP3 player Nancy gave her. She drew and colored pictures for Nancy. On them she scribbled "my soul sister."

In early August, Mary wore a new black dress to a concert downtown. She wore a rhinestone necklace Nancy had given her and had newly painted polka-dot fingernails.

"I'm a movie star," Mary said.

photo Marlene Kondolojy touches Mary Cody's face as Diane Ginsberg, left, and Nancy Rus, right, look on Friday at Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute. The sisters tell Mary that they have looked for her for years and will never lose her again.

Throughout the weeks while Mary was safe in a hotel room, Nancy began gathering Mary's medical records and piecing together her history. She paged through records from hospitals, clinics, state agencies, mental health centers and police departments.

Local police records show Mary has been attacked and robbed. They also show she has been arrested five times for disorderly conduct. Privately some officers say some of those arrests were efforts to get her into a warm jail cell during a bitter cold spell or after a beating or fall.

Patten Towers attorney Jeffrey Schaarschmidt filed court papers to evict Mary on Aug. 31, 2010. He said the eviction took place because Mary spat in the face of Chris Mack, the Towers' manager, and several days later she threw hot coffee into her face.

"The property manager [Mack] felt for Mary, but you still can't take that style of abuse. We're an apartment complex, we're not a nursing home. We're not a mental facility," Schaarschmidt said.

The eviction papers filed in Hamilton County Sessions Court, however, state the reason for eviction was nonpayment of rent for one month: the August rent of $192.

But Mary's rent was paid every month on time by the Southeast Tennessee Human Resources Agency, which had been handling her money since at least 2008 because she had been deemed mentally retarded.

Patten Towers also made a $5,000 fire damages claim against Mary after her apartment was gutted by fire even though firefighters said there was no human factor involved. Mary's Social Security income is still paying the damages.

From February until July, Mary had no money and no way to access her Social Security disability money.

Southeast Tennessee Human Resources Agency sent a portion of her Social Security money to the Community Kitchen. But because Mary had been banned from the kitchen, its workers never cashed the checks.

Mary never got the money.

After they met, Nancy gave Mary some money. One day this summer, Nancy watched as Mary sat in Miller Park and pulled bills from her purse, tried to count them, and put them back. Over and over.

Nancy glanced at the people in the crowded park and bus stop.

"She's just prey," Nancy said quietly.

photo Nancy Rus, right, cuts meat for Mary Cody as they eat lunch at the Pickle Barrel. Pickle Barrel employees were kind to Cody when she was living on the street near the business.

Nancy's biggest frustration came from fighting with social service agencies about whether Mary should be diagnosed as psychotic or mentally retarded.

A proper diagnosis is crucial to what long-term services would be available for her.

It could determine whether Mary would remain on the street, be institutionalized or be placed in a group home with people like her.

Nancy's observation of Mary over many weeks told her Mary had a temper and post traumatic stress from mistreatment and street living, not a psychosis. And she was convinced Mary's primary problem was retardation.

As Nancy researched Mary's medical and social services records, she also researched long-term care programs.

Nancy thought a group home for mentally disabled adults with 24-hour care would be the best option for Mary. But to get Mary into the program she wanted, she would have to prove Mary was mentally disabled before she was 18.

An evaluator at the TEAM center said her IQ was 51 but that her story about early brain damage would have to be verified.

Nancy already had been on the trail of records in Vermont after finding Mary's birth certificate.

She thought she had what she needed with the Vermont State Hospital report of Mary's brain damage at 16 months.

But in August, Tennessee denied Mary's application to the program.

In a matter of days, TennCare also denied Mary admittance to another group-home program for people with physical disabilities.

Not long after finding the doors closed, Nancy burst into tears while driving Mary to the hotel. The effect on Mary was strong.

"I'm not fit to live. I'm a burden to everyone. I'm going to jump out of the car and let a truck run over my head," Mary screamed.

Had Nancy's friend Paul Hall not been in the back seat, Mary might have succeeded.

Hours of tears later, five police officers cajoled Mary into the back seat of a squad car for a ride to Erlanger and a mental evaluation at Moccasin Bend Mental Hospital.

Nancy lowered her head.

"I let her down," she sobbed.

photo Mary Cody matches pictures to words while taking tests in the Team Centers, Inc. offices to determine her comprehension levels. Depending on the results of the tests, she might be eligible for assistance.

This was Mary's fifth visit to Moccasin Bend.

None of the previous visits lasted longer than four days. Just long enough for a couple of conversations with a specialist.

Most visits to Erlanger and the Homeless Health Care Clinic lasted barely 30 minutes.

None of them homed in on mental retardation. There just wasn't time to explore.

But for this trip to Moccasin Bend, Mary had Nancy.

Nancy was quick to point out that by law, Moccasin Bend cannot release a patient to homelessness.

Mary had been in Moccasin Bend for five weeks, and Nancy kept searching for answers.

Then, a break came.

Nancy found a 1974 Northern Virginia Mental Health Hospital record diagnosing Mary, then 17, as having "retardation." Other diagnoses included epilepsy and explosive personality disorder.

In more Virginia records, Nancy found a description of Mary's stepfather that ultimately allowed Nancy to track him down.

The discoveries came just in time to help her meet the deadline for filing appeals to fight the state's program denials.

photo Mary Cody holds her arms out to show off her outfit to Nancy Rus. Rus took Cody shopping at All Things Groovy, where she picked out several retro items.

Robert Rosen, a former attorney for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and presently part of Rosen & Associates, is living in Los Angeles.

"When [Nancy] told me the story, I was in tears," said Rosen, Mary's stepfather. "We're grateful she's alive. And it's unbelievable that someone [Nancy] would take that on."

Rosen helped Mary's mother write a letter appealing to the programs for help.

Theresa Rosen's letter said when Mary's father threw her to the floor it triggered mental retardation, epilepsy, seizures and paralysis of her left side.

"[Mary] never was the same after that," her mother wrote. "She was a slow learner. She was picked on at schools by the other children."

Mary's mother said her daughter could not feed herself, bathe herself or manage her money.

She had terrible mood swings and threatened others.

Her mother said many psychiatrists and psychologists diagnosed Mary as mentally retarded.

Her letter said Mary gave birth to three baby boys before she disappeared. All of them were adopted.

Mary also had a daughter in Chattanooga in 1993. The child was taken by the state.

Last week, Rosen and Nancy made a plan for two of Mary's sisters to visit her.

They hadn't seen her in 22 years.

photo Nancy Rus looks through stacks of files about Mary Cody that she has gathered to piece Cody's history together. Almost all of her time has been spent visiting various agencies to find out Cody's history and get assistance for her.

From the first day Nancy saw Mary and resolved to do something, she was asked over and over: Why are you doing this? What do you want out of this?

Her answer was always the same.

"I just want a happy ending."

She told people she'd always seen herself as a "change agent."

The truth is, when Nancy realized how much work it would take to save Mary, she worried she wouldn't be able to do it.

She wondered if, with her illness, she would have the physical stamina to fight for Mary.

But last week, Nancy got her happy ending.

With the Rosens' help, Nancy won approval for Mary to get into the program that will place her in a group home.

On Friday, Mary's sisters -- Diane Ginsberg, of Las Vegas, and Marlene Kondolojy, of Woodridge, Va. -- stood with Nancy at Moccasin Bend.

"I'm so nervous I'm shaking," said Kondolojy.

Nancy already had prepped Mary with messages from the sisters, as well as some pictures Rosen emailed of them and their mother during a beach vacation.

Nancy told the sisters how to read Mary's quirky looks and expressions. Kondolojy wiped away a tear.

"I should be telling you these things," she told Nancy.

An attendant wheeled Mary into the room. Mary's sisters swarmed her, and the three dissolved into tears and hugs.

"We've looked for you everywhere," Ginsberg told Mary, who was sobbing.

"We're never going to lose you again," Kondolojy said.

Ginsberg and Kondolojy pulled brand new hats, hippie clothes and jewelry from a suitcase and layered it on Mary.

Nancy sat quietly in the back of the room and watched.

The sisters showed Mary a recent picture of their mother.

A smile spread over Mary's face.

"She looks like me, doesn't she?" Mary asked. The sisters agreed.

Nancy's eyebrows peaked and her smile broadened.

"I said I wanted a happy ending, but I never dreamed it would be like this," she said. "I didn't think I still had it in me."