Struggling on the City's Streets
From Issue: Volume XXII - Number 9
By Kirt Ramirez
A 57-year old woman with stage-four breast cancer rests in a hospital bed at a local nursing home. She’s been there since the middle of February. The doctors can’t do much for her anymore. She takes it one day at a time. The cancer ate through her skin years ago and is exposed. The smell is strong.
The cancer is so full of fluid that fluid comes out her mouth. “I’m almost always out of breath,” she said.
The woman is sharp, sophisticated, very honest, sincere and precise. She’s up on current events and listens to talk radio at night. She is private and doesn’t want her real name used in this article – but rather – her street name, Kathy.
Kathy worked several jobs when she was younger and usually held more than one at a time. She was a full-charge bookkeeper, a cashier, a Brown Derby waitress, a computer operator, an executive secretary, toiled in credit and collections, purchasing, and even labored in construction. Kathy saved up enough money to buy a house in the San Fernando Valley.
But after becoming depressed, anxious and stressed, Kathy filed for social security disability in 1987 at the advice of her friends, as she had trouble working. “I just couldn’t function. I was able to work a little bit after that, but not much,” she said.
In the mid-1980s Kathy found a lump on her right armpit and showed her doctors but “nobody took me seriously.” She said they brushed her off saying it was probably a fat deposit. “They didn’t want to bother. They acted like it was nothing,” she said, adding that she did not have medical insurance.
At the age of 30 in 1987, she noted the lump in her social security application papers along with the other issues she was having. But it would take 18 years before Kathy would finally get approved – and only because of a cancer diagnosis years after having applied. But she never received any of the few checks or social security mail that did come about 11 years ago, as the homeless agency that worked with her withheld her mail for about a year and returned it all back to social security because she did not make them the payee, she said.
“I never saw a penny of it.”
Long story short, Kathy ended up on the streets of downtown Long Beach starting 11 ½ years ago. She had “unfit” housing off and on but mostly was homeless during that time. You may have seen her with a sign “Homeless + Cancer.” Her areas included the courthouse, Lincoln Park, the harbor, homeless agencies and churches.
Kathy recalled her first days on the street, “The first thing I noticed is you have to find a bathroom. You can’t use restaurants. They have to be public,” she said. “If you’re a dirty, smelly, homeless person, they generally don’t want you in there.”
Public restrooms were at City Hall, the downtown library and beach areas.
“My first three days I didn’t eat anything. Then I found out where to go.” Kathy would find food in trash cans – leftover shrimp and steak from restaurants, smoothies, vegetables. Occasionally people would walk up to her and hand her something.
The cancer got worse.
“The most recent lump in the right breast near the surface eventually began to eat through the skin and expose itself to the air,” she said.
It caused an odor and she couldn’t do anything about it. She read about cancer at the library. For years she researched the topic through literature and the Internet only to be asked to leave by security because of the persistent odor, even to the point of being threatened with arrest if she did not leave immediately, and told not to return.
Kathy tried self-help and holistic approaches. She followed a cancer diet low in sugars and refined carbohydrates. For the most part she avoided food provided by charities, as it was the wrong kind of food for her condition, she said.
Over time she sought help from several charitable agencies including the Rescue Mission’s Lydia House for women, but it was full and she was turned away.
She went to other agencies and churches. Of them all, she found Catholic Charities to be the most caring – but they lacked funding, she said.
For the most part, Kathy did her own thing. She slept mostly outside in a sleeping bag at night in different locations, with the most recent spot being along the 710 freeway. “Once you’re on the street, it’s hard to get off. People won’t consider you for work oftentimes if you don’t have a phone and or address.”
She recycled for money and accepted donations from kind people.
Kathy said she’s experienced police brutality repeatedly “for no reason.” One day she rested on Pine Avenue on a hot afternoon but the police asked her to leave. Things escalated and “The next thing I knew I was soaked in blood leaving in an ambulance.” A tumor had ruptured and bled profusely after an officer pulled tightly on her T-shirt, she said.
“I got roughed up asking an officer for his badge number in another situation,” she added.
Kathy relied on the Lord and would read her Holy Bible. “I could tell you many experiences that I’ve had when I’ve called on God and he was there for me,” she said. “But if you refuse him, he’ll leave you alone. He doesn’t force you.”
About her philosophy, “I think God and the Bible put it well: Love thy neighbor as thyself. I feel we’ve strayed away from God and his rules that he made for our own well-being, and if we stuck by him and his commandments, the world could be a wonderful place.”
Kathy concluded, “I think we’re having the problems we are because we feel that we don’t have to listen to God and can do whatever we want. God gave us free will. Mankind has not listened to God and done things his way beginning in the Garden of Eden paradise and got kicked out.
“And today mankind is destroying animals, plants, Earth and even ourselves with chemicals, drugs, pollution and many other things. There are murders, wars, child molestations and much more. Hopefully people will wake up before it’s too late. God bless you all.”
Captain Dan Salas, owner and operator of Harbor Breeze Cruises in Long Beach, has seen Kathy over the last six or seven years in the area where his boats dock at Rainbow Harbor. He got to know her well in the last two months. Kathy did not want any attention but it was Salas who urged the Beachcomber to write about this “angel.”
Salas said Kathy appeared different from other homeless. She did not drink, did not do drugs, did not smoke and was a hard worker.
“She’d ask us a couple times if she could come on our dock and pick up recyclables at the end of the day’s work. At first I was kind of reluctant to allow her to do that but came to find out that she was very honest, trustworthy and to the point where she would even keep an eye on our equipment and our boats in the evening,” he said.
“Over the years we never really said more than ‘hello’ or ‘how you doing’ to her. I didn’t even know her name until recently.”
Salas gave Kathy his business card and received a call from her earlier in the year that she was having trouble breathing. She asked if Salas could pick up her baby-buggy and store it for her in hopes she would return.
About two weeks later, Salas got a call from a Harbor-UCLA doctor that Kathy would be going into a nursing home in Long Beach under hospice care.
Salas wrote down the address, “But to be honest, I really didn’t know the lady and other than just seeing her down here on the streets or near the harbor, I really didn’t want to get involved anymore.
“I don’t know what happened, but one day I thought, ‘Well, let me go check on this woman.’ I didn’t really know her name. I didn’t know her last name other than people calling her ‘Kathy’ down here. To find out, that wasn’t her name.
“I had to look around in a lot of different beds until I found her. And what was really eye-opening to me was that when I walked into the room, she was with a minister from the hospice care. She had her head down. She was sitting up on the bed when I walked in. The chaplain asked her if she had any family or anybody that he could call, or anybody that could help her and I heard her say ‘no’ she had no one.
“And that’s when I walked in and they didn’t see me; I was standing behind them and then the minister looked up and said ‘Hey, looks like there’s someone here to see you, looks like you do have a friend’ and that was the moment that stuck with me.
“So over the next month, I got to know Kathy and she had an interesting story, and it’s changed my outlook on life and how things can change. It doesn’t take many problems to get you into that situation.
“After visiting her a few times, she told me she had a van parked in downtown Long Beach and that she was real concerned about getting parking tickets. I thought to myself, ‘Why is this woman worried about getting a ticket when she’s struggling for her life right now?’ And she was very adamant that she didn’t want to get any parking tickets and if we would help her move the van. So we agreed and moved it.
“Come to find out, her van was packed with recyclables where we could barely open the door on either side because it was so full of aluminum cans, plastic bottles, packed to the top. And she told me that she wanted what was in certain areas of that van to go to the Catholic Charities organization in Long Beach for her final wishes.
“And she told me that when she was living near the bridge that skunks would come at night and snatch some of the food and that the skunks were friendly. They were nice. They only took what they needed to eat. She didn’t want to scare them because she didn’t want them to spray on her, but she said they were very friendly and tidy animals.
“I guess my message is that sometimes you just walk past people and you see that they may be struggling on the streets. You just never know who that person may be and you may be tested.”