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From the Streets and the Heart, a Poet's Words Live On

Christopher Blank

In 2013, Theddy Wilkes was homeless and suffering from depression and alcoholism. But he had recently started writing poetry and having it published in a local newspaper called The Bridge.

"I'm not really writing for attention," he told us. "It's more for comfort. But every time I write, I share a part of me. Part of me is getting on the paper."

Theddy's life started looking up after that.

Cheryl Dean, a housing advocate with Promise Development Corporation, was his case manager. She said he was always in good spirits when they met.

Promise Development works with the homeless to find permanent housing, but also to address the root causes of homelessness.

Dean said that Wilkes began to tackle the long-term problems that kept him on the street.

"He did his mental health work, he wanted to take his medicine, he seeked to get help all the time," she said.

But alcoholism and depression took a constant toll on Wilkes, and when the pandemic came, he, like many others, faced daunting new challenges.

Dean says that her clients were hit especially hard by the pandemic. Access to social services became reduced, in part because appointments were needed to visit with social workers. Many clients don't have phones to make those appointments.

Then came the isolation and distancing imposed by the virus, which led to mental breakdowns and new anxieties.

Over the summer, Theddy Wilkes was undergoing treatment for cancer when he contracted COVID-19 and died.

At a memorial service in September, his brother, Timothy Wilkes described him as a shy and gentle man who endured a lifetime of personal demons. But Wilkes' poems, he says, speak to the sensitive person he was inside.

"You couldn't go by his actions sometimes, when he acted up or something," Timothy Wilkes said. "Those poems are from the heart. He had a good heart, like a lot of people have a good heart, but they are just kind of misdirected and they have habits."

As Theddy told us nearly a decade ago, he hoped his writing would encourage compassion for those facing poverty or battling mental illness.

One of his poems, "It's Amazing," can be heard on the audio attached to this story. It was recorded in 2013.

Dean says the pandemic is still not over for many people experiencing homelessness, poverty or mental illness in Memphis, and encourages donating food or money to some of the many organizations in the city dedicated to helping the less fortunate.

Reporting from the gates of Graceland to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Christopher has covered Memphis news, arts, culture and politics for more than 20 years in print and on the radio. He is currently WKNO's News Director and Senior Producer at the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting. Join his conversations about the Memphis arts scene on the WKNO Culture Desk Facebook page.