Libba Phillips stood on the sidewalk of one of Tampa’s seediest streets and watched a young woman in a red miniskirt saunter toward a car. She had the same mane of auburn hair as Libba’s missing sister, Ashley.
As the young woman leaned into the open window of the old Chevy to talk to the driver, Libba moved closer and touched her shoulder.
The woman spun around. She had the face of a total stranger. “I’m sorry,” Libba said, backing away. “I thought you were someone else.” She reached into her backpack and pulled out a flyer with a color photo of her sister, lost now for two years.
Like so many of the women on the street, Ashley had suffered abuse as a child. By the time she was 15, she’d become rebellious, depressed and addicted to alcohol and crack. For years, she was in and out of counseling, and, one March day in 1998, she left a rehab center and simply vanished. The family contacted the police and tried to file a missing persons report. But Ashley, 23, was an adult, and there were no signs of foul play. Considering her history of mental illness and drug abuse, the police felt she’d disappeared of her own accord.
“I’m sure she’ll show up soon,” the officer said. “She’s probably just passed out at a friend’s house.” Hearing that, Libba began her relentless search on the streets.
Missing people with mental illness and substance abuse problems are often ignored by law enforcement, and Libba was sure other families were living through losses like hers. Three years after her sister disappeared, she left a good job in pharmaceutical sales to launch Outpost for Hope, a nonprofit organization from which she takes no pay. Its website, outpostforhope.org, helps families searching for missing loved ones. It outlines a recovery plan and describes psychiatric resources for people who have been found.
A phone call from Gwyn Robson of Maryland is typical. “Can you help me find my daughter, Marie?” Gwyn asks Libba. It’s 2003, and she shares Marie’s heartbreaking story before bursting into tears. “Outpost for Hope made flyers, provided volunteers to post them, contacted the media,” Gwyn says. “And they gave me the emotional support I desperately needed.” Almost five months after her disappearance, Marie returned home, thanks to the organization’s publicity.
On February 7, 2003—nearly five years had gone by with no word of Ashley—Libba got good news. A friend of Ashley’s had seen one of the posters and urged her to call home. Libba flew to North Carolina to find her sister emaciated, beaten and with little memory of the time she’d been lost. Today Libba Phillips and Outpost for Hope have helped some 50 families find their lost loved ones and start them on the road to recovery.
Libba helped train law enforcement and mental health professionals at last fall’s national Crisis Intervention Team conference. Every time she talks to a group, her mind flashes back to Tampa and the faces of the women on the street. Then she thinks of Ashley—safe again at home.