• 77 and toothless, former teacher holds on to hope

    BA in Social Services and a lifetime of helping others but no one it seems can help her

    by Erika Fiske

    The 77-year-old, grey-haired woman is sitting by the window at a McDonald’s near Costco. She’s thin, with blue bulging eyes and no teeth. Her skinny face appears to be caving in toward the toothless mouth. She’s finishing up her meal of mostly liquids. Her winter coat is zipped up to her chin. Beside her is a plastic bag with containers of water, juice and such. That’s all she has with her.

    Susan is homeless, one of many such people shuffling along the streets of this community of wealth, abundance and beauty. I didn’t come upon her by accident. Someone called and told me this woman spent the night at a Denny’s by the Motel 6 in Marina. She’s eating and staying warm at McDonald’s until she can make her way to the Ocean View Baptist Church in Seaside—a long walk from here. There, at a 7:30 p.m. service, she hopes to find a woman she knows who might give her a place to stay tonight.

    After introducing myself and telling her why I am here, we begin to talk. It isn’t easy to watch her try to speak without teeth. Her mouth is coated with many meals and organisms. Once in a while a morsel of food makes its way to her lips and falls off. Many times I have to ask her to repeat her sentences. Sometimes she has to take my pen and spell a word I simply can’t make out.

    Susan is no stranger to this area. Although born in Los Angeles in the 30s, she has lived here for many years, teaching in elementary schools and caring for elderly in their homes, often in the Carmel, Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove areas. Her former husband was an electronics engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and involved with space research. “He did some of the original research on the stars and sun,” she says. And NASA used some of his research on the Space Program.

    Susan has had problems with homelessness for more than a year. She says her predicament “Doesn’t make much sense. The economy went down, my medical problems got worse and I couldn’t work. Then rents got higher, and waiting lists for low-income housing got longer. Now it takes about two yeas to get into housing. If Romney gets elected, all of our safety nets are going to be gone.”

    If nothing else, Susan isn’t stupid. But she walks with difficulty and is unsteady, with painful knees. She suffers from heart trouble, diabetes and emphysema. Often she expels phlegm from her lungs and reaches for a napkin. Soon she searches through her plastic bag for her daily heart medication. Susan isn’t well.

    Despite all that’s going wrong, she seems remarkably upbeat. She says matter-of-factly if she doesn’t find help at the church, she’ll stay at a Denny’s again, napping in a booth. Susan’s used to hardship. As a youngster, she was severely burned when a spark from an incinerator in her family’s backyard caught her Halloween custom on fire. The family dog, Rogue, saved her life by barking so loud that everyone came running. Susan suffered third-degree burns from the waist up, and underwent years of surgery to mend her skin. Luckily, one of the top plastic and reconstructive surgeons in the world operated on Susan, Dr. William Kiskadden. “By letting me grow up in a loving environment at the old Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, I grew up mentally healthy,” she says. Susan recalls undergoing many surgeries over a long period, ending at age 15. After each one, she had to remain in bed without moving for 10 days, until the skin grafts took hold. “And after that, I could walk, and they put me to work caring for other children who were bedridden,” she says. “It got me thinking about others and not just myself. If not for that work, I wouldn’t have turned out as emotionally healthy as I am.”

    The fire removed so much calcium and phosphorus from her body that her teeth were destroyed. She’s been completely toothless for some five years. She doesn’t dwell on the pain and suffering, but looks at those years in and out of the hospital as a blessing, because she learned so much about caring for others. It didn’t save her from the life she now faces, however–alone, toothless, thin, with major physical illnesses and living on the streets. The homeless woman actually had a local room she rented recently at $400 a month and which she found advertised at a Laundromat. After moving in, she discovered a mouse living in her room and family issues in that household that made it impossible for her to stay. She left within six weeks.

    Now Susan’s holding onto $150 she hopes to use for rent someplace this month, until her next $500 SSI check arrives in July. Unfortunately, she had to borrow ahead on that money for a motel room she stayed in briefly and now owes the bank $325.

    Susan said local agencies have not been able to help her. “I was under Adult Protective Services for a while, but all I got were some rides and a few bus tickets,” she says.

    Because of her quiet voice and lack of teeth, hearing her at the McDonald s becomes increasingly difficult over equipment noise and loud music. After asking her several times to write down words I canst hear, I suggest we find a quieter place to talk. And I offer to drop her off at the church later. Immediately she gathers her belongings (the plastic bag) and makes her way to the door. She says something I can’t understand, and then heads off in the opposite direction of my car. Soon I realize why. She has such difficulty walking that she needs to step from the curb at a certain spot, where there’s something to hold onto. I try to imagine her out on the streets day and night, walking in the cold.

    After finding her church closed at the moment, I turn back to find a small sandwich shop to continue our interview. She sips on an orange juice between sentences. “I have a B.A. from San Jose State, in social services,” she tells me, pulling from her bag a copy of her university transcripts. Susan married Richard before she finished school, but continued with schooling when her son was four. “We married the day after Richard graduated from San Jose State University, where there was an excellent engineering program,” she says. Richard was already working at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on space technology at the time. His work was top secret, and he never talked about it. “We had to be cleared by the FBI,” she says. After divorcing, Susan claims people seeking information about Richard’s work approached her many times over the years. She was even told by someone that her mind was easy to read, so she wouldn’t be able to keep her secrets.

    “They were trying to get information on what was going on at the lab,” she says. What worries Susan about the facility is radiation leakage, which she says is killing people.

    Richard and Susan were married 17 years, divorcing in 1974. They had two children, but her son died from liver damage at 33 years of age. “His liver was so damaged from alcohol that it literally fell apart in the surgeon’s hands,” she notes, a touch of sadness still in her voice. In Livermore, Susan was active in the community and concerned about the plight of families without food, utilities or medical care. She organized a group that included a priest, minister and rabbi, two Hispanics, a police chief, a registered nurse and a dentist to form a board of directors for the Emergency Relief Fund of Livermore and Amador Valley. From that beginning, a shelter also was established.
    After her divorce, Susan lived on alimony for a few years, and then began teaching school. As she talks on, she reaches into her bag for her 1969 Elementary Teaching Certificate. She taught in a number of school districts, including the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District, and says she never made more than $20 a day teaching. Later she began living with and caring for elderly in this area, sometimes through the Carmel Foundation. About 15 years ago, as her health began to deteriorate, she underwent another three surgeries at the University of California in San Francisco for squamous cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer.

    But nothing could slow her down. Susan was given a four-year-old, chocolate-brown Arabian Stallion from the Jack Tone Ranch in Stockton, which she trained and used as a therapy animal around children with cystic fibrosis. The animal suffered kidney damage from poor care at one boarding stable, but still lived to be 30, dying four years ago.
    Susan says she’s estranged from her daughter, reared by Richard, and who majored in microbiology at the University of the Pacific in Stockton and is now in her 50s. She last saw her three years ago, when Susan was offered a tiny, unkempt trailer to live in on her daughter’s property. Susan said no and left.

    Although she doesn’t have any family helping her now, Susan is proud of her family heritage. My family has a long history in California. “They were here before the American Revolution,” she notes. Her last job involved caring for an elderly woman in Elk Grove until the woman died one-and-one-half years ago. At that point, Susan became homeless. “What went wrong in my life? I think my age began working against me,” she says, thinking about the long, winding path to where she is today. Despite everything, Susan hasn’t given up. “I’m hoping I can get strong physically, so I can get back to work,” she says; looking up with those large blue eyes, and maybe a touch of a smile from that toothless mouth. “I have $150 left for the rest of the month. But it’s okay, there are places I can go for food.”
    It’s getting late. I tell Susan we’d better get over to the church. She climbs into my Jeep and we head toward Ocean View Baptist Church. As we pull up, I feel a sense of relief seeing the door wide open. But the news isn’t good. There are only four people seated in the church. Susan got the time wrong, and the woman she’s looking for isn’t there.

    I ask if there’s any way she could stay here for the night, but the answer is no. The preacher isn’t around and no one has authority, we’re told. I call 211, but am told the local shelter is full. Nothing works out. Susan asks me not to call Dorothy’s Place because she nearly died from pneumonia there. Finally, I call 911.

    Soon two Seaside officers arrive, and they take her aside to talk. Meanwhile, I speak with the four church members seated before me. I ask them what Jesus would do in this case. I ask them why, with so many churches around, something can’t be worked out to offer a church for women to sleep in at night, as is available for men. That would take care of any shelter overflow. I ask them why this topic can’t come up each week during services at all the churches, until everyone joins to solve this problem, so that an ill, 77-year-old woman is never left to fend for herself at night, in the cold, again.

    The officers talk with Susan for a long time before one of them returns to us, as we wait in the worship area. It seems they’ll have to transport her to a hospital, so she’ll have a real bed, and maybe even some mouth care. Wouldn’t it be nice if the hospital could do something about her teeth? Maybe a billionaire or two could chip in for a nice set, so she could chew again.

    Wouldn’t that be nice.

    Erika Fiske, concerned that a 77 year-old, ill woman has “fallen through the safety nets”, has followed Susan since their first interview, the night the police took Susan to the hospital. There, Susan was treated for various problems and given “a sofa” to sleep on, but after four nights was put back out on the street again. Susan, says Erika, has Medicare and Medi-Cal. Like many homeless, Susan follows the “open for business” hours of late-night and early-morning establishments, trying to stay warm and looking for shelter. Erika contacted another homeless facility the day before we went to press, looking for help for Susan, and was told that they just don’t have room and Susan would have to go on a waiting list. When Erika wondered how a younger, more healthy person could be house before Susan would be, the worker hung up. It’s probably a question the worker answers many times each day.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on June 20, 2012

    Topics: Homeless Chronicles

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