In all my writing about the homeless crisis, writing about a certain homeless 50-year-old woman I knew from my past feels like the most agonizing undertaking possible. I’ve avoided it for a couple of years, but no longer can because the story compels me to publicize it to the larger world, even though she will never read it.

No, the woman is not dead. Something perhaps worse.

Annette L and I met in 1989 when I began my first year of teaching at a suburban high school south of Portland. She landed in my American Government and Beginning Psychology courses as a sophomore. She quickly distinguished herself as a vocal, excellent student who demonstrated passion for humanitarian causes. I’ll never forget her performance in a debate advocating for the progressive income tax. It was an intense one-on-one affair against an Ayn Rand-styled conservative and Annette dismantled her opponent with crisp economic logic and an emotional appeal to fairness and making American society more equitable.

It was during this time that I ran into Annette before a REM concert in the Memorial Coliseum. It was the band’s Green tour and I took a date with me on a school night. Annette was there with a boy I didn’t recognize from school. She was utterly shocked to see her teacher at such an event, and said so, laughing the whole time. I laughed at the insinuation that I wasn’t cool enough to attend a rock show.

I quit at the end of that first year and traveled to Mexico in attempt to become a writer (which failed). Annette transferred to another high school in the Portland area after I left, a much more academically challenging institution.

We ran into each other a couple years later when I was living in downtown Portland and teaching social studies at a suburban high school. She and a friend were in the lobby of an art house theater. I was alone. We were all there to see Europa, Europa, an acclaimed European film about a young refugee boy trying to survive the hellscape of Germany during WW II. Annette was shocked and happy to see me and after the movie, we all went for coffee to discuss this remarkable and harrowing movie.

After that unexpected meeting, we occasionally met to catch up on our lives. Annette was restless and wanted adventures away from Oregon, but the time wasn’t right.

Then we lost touch.

Several years later, for reasons I no longer recall, Annette and I got back in contact and began corresponding, mostly when I was abroad, still trying (unsuccessfully) to become a writer. She was attending Boston University and majoring in political science and global affairs. Her plan was to become a diplomat of some kind or work for an international humanitarian agency. She was already fluent in Spanish because of her Panamanian heritage: her father had served in the US military, stationed in the Canal Zone, and had met Annette’s mother, a Panamanian native. I never did learn how they ended up in Oregon.

Annette and I met again in 1996 when she returned to Oregon after graduating from Boston University and living in New England where she worked at various communication jobs and also did modeling on the side. I was teaching at a suburban high west of Portland. By then, I had transitioned out of social studies and into English, journalism and creative writing. I still hadn’t got the writing going and began wondering if I ever would.

What prompted this reunion had a unique origin: one day at school I received a message that Annette’s mother had called the school and asked me to call her. This was very odd. I had never met the mother. I returned the call immediately and her mother informed me that Annette was experiencing early symptoms of schizophrenia and refusing to take them seriously. Annette’s mom knew I had acted as a mentor to her daughter and that Annette respected my opinions. She might listen to me. Would I meet her and perhaps nudge her toward taking the diagnosis of early stage schizophrenia more seriously?

I said yes, but was utterly and obviously out of my depth. The mother gave me Annette’s number and told me not to tell Annette that she had called me about her condition. Apparently, Annette was highly sensitive about it.

Annette was now in her early 20s. Our reunion took place in a pub and it was grand as we recounted our various lives, including my adventures while teaching English in Turkey. She was in Portland for an indefinite amount of time so we agreed to meet again. In our initial meeting I didn’t mention anything about schizophrenia. I saw no obvious changes in her except, of course, that she was older and exuded a definite adult bearing.

She wanted to come visit me in my classroom and I said that was fine. She hung out for half a day and even participated in some of the writing activities.

Later that week we met again and I broached the subject of her mental health and mentioned her mother’s call and concern. Yes, I violated the mother’s confidence. In the moment, there was no other choice.

Annette reacted with extreme anger with her mother and me for bringing up the mental health issue. It was a private matter. She felt manipulated and suggested our friendship was fake, staged. She was sick of her mother’s meddling. I was truly surprised at the level of her anger. I had no previous experience with anyone suffering a mental health crisis. I didn’t know what I was doing but I cared about Annette’s well being so I went on instinct.

We parted on good terms, but didn’t get back in touch again for almost a decade.

By then, the internet had emerged.

One might think that with the advent of the Internet and email, Annette and I would have kept in closer touch. That didn’t turn out to be true.

She resurfaced in 2009 or 10 when I received a friend request from her on Facebook. I accepted. Her profile indicated she had only one other friend, a Boston U alumni, and that she now lived in Las Vegas. Her profile pic was a model shot that probably wasn’t recent. There were no posts by her.

Very odd, I thought. I messaged her and didn’t hear back.

I no longer recall what brought about the resumption of our communication (possibly it was because of publicity about one of my books that reached her?), but Annette emailed me in 2012 or 13. It was great to hear from her and I told her I was moving to Astoria and she said how exciting that all sounded. She claimed she was working on various media-related projects, including, I think, a book or blog. Her writing seemed a bit off to me, but I didn’t ask anything about the state of her mental health.

My last communication with Annette was in 2013.

In the ensuing years, I sent her messages via Facebook and email. Nothing. Sometimes I googled her and learned she had launched some new Internet-related venture only to see it die out after one or two posts/installments. What she was posting didn’t make a lot of sense.

During one of my searches, I cam across a post on some platform by Annette’s older brother, who was a visual artist or filmmaker who was also living in Las Vegas. He made a reference to Annette to being homeless and posted a picture of her. She wore her hair in long dread locks and had a marked weathering about the face, but I still saw the old Annette in her eyes and smile.

I immediately contacted Annette’s brother through his platform, asking for information about her, and how I could reach out. He replied with a curt message that she was homeless in Las Vegas, a schizophrenic who refused housing/shelter and that he had no way of contacting her. That struck me as odd since he had just posted about her but I didn’t press it.

For the next two years on an intermittent basis, I tried calling various Las Vegas phone numbers that the internet provided for Annette. Nothing. I mailed several post cards and letters to her last listed address in Las Vegas. I sent a letter to her mother’s address in West Linn. Noting and more nothing.

Several months ago, I did another google search and something new about Annette came up: someone who claimed to be Annette’s sister-in-law had posted a video on YouTube of Annette walking toward the camera and the person doing the filming narrated Annette’s approach. When Annette appeared, speaking gibberish, I could not believe what I saw. Her physical appearance was shattered. Shaved head. Destroyed face. Strange eyes. Emaciated. She looked exactly like the destroyed 40-70-year old homeless women I’ve seen all over Oregon in recent years.

I started crying. I couldn’t bear to watch the video again. It had three views. I thought about commenting, but refrained because I didn’t know what to say.

What was there to do? I stood up from the computer, walked out of my studio, and into the kitchen. I poured myself a glass of red wine and went out to the back yard to sit on the lawn and think about my long gone friend who once had all the promise in the world and was now homeless and dying on the streets.