Sierra Bailey was a mother of three, a twin, a young woman gripped by addiction and a homeless youth.
Her short life ended Friday, November 25, in Philadelphia, the day after Thanksgiving and four days before her 28th birthday.
I first met Sierra in August 2015 while reporting on a lack of resources for young Philadelphians who have no place to call home. She was quiet, rail thin and had a beautiful, sly smile. As we spoke, she would cock her head to the side, her eyes darting away to avoid making contact for long.
The Lower Merion High School grad from Ardmore, Pennsylvania, told two NBC10 reporters at the time that she was 19 (a fact we were skeptical of, but one we didn’t let it discount her story), that her last name was Richardson and that she’d often house hop to get a safe night’s sleep. When no one would take her in, she’d walk the streets all night.
"I just try to stay up as long as I can," she told my colleague Morgan Zalot and I. "It's like hell."
A mix of desperation and compulsion to her addiction led her to go on "dates" from time to time to make money. Those were a "last resort," she explained.
For a time, Sierra dreamed of being a doctor, but had given up on that aspiration by the time we met. "I can't now," she said with regret tinging the edges of her rich voice.
She also spoke longingly of a daughter, who she hadn't seen in some time.
Sierra's death was ruled accidental by the medical examiner. The exact cause of death hasn't been released as the coroner waits to notify her family first.
Her story illustrates the tangled web among social epidemics like the opioid crisis and youth homelessness — one often fueling the other.
Each year in Philadelphia, hundreds of youth don't have a safe home to go to when the day ends. Advocates insist statistics gathered through homeless youth counts are most likely extremely under-representative, however, because young people are embarrassed to identify as homeless and tend to stay out of sight. Six thousand additional kids lack a stable home to go home to. Instead, they'll spend nights sleeping on friend's couches or on the street.
Some wind up on the street as a result of poor parenting, others as a result, in part, of their own misguided choices. Exposure to the elements and human dangers like robbery, rape and murder envelop them in a constant swirl of uncertainty and stress. Drugs become a way to numb the pain and get through the disturbing days and nights.
Other times, like in Sierra's case, the disease of addiction lead them to the streets, with a way out hidden from plain view.
The city has begun taking larger steps to join advocacy groups like Covenant House Pennsylvania and Valley Youth House to fight youth homelessness. This week, City Council approved an additional $700,000 in funding to add more beds to the emergency and short-term housing system.
On the heroin and opioid crisis, a city task force has been created to help steer other young people like Sierra — who told us she'd come to the city to buy drugs in high school — away from the extremely powerful and highly addictive painkillers. But that fight, at this point, continues to be a losing one.
Sierra leaves behind three daughters, her mother, two sisters and extended family. She will be buried Friday afternoon. Her family launched a GoFundMe page asking for help covering the funeral expenses.
The Penn Valley Elementary School in Narberth is also accepting donations for the benefit of Sierra's children.