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Requiem for Lisa

Ideas & Opinions — Tom Durkin | Columnist Printed in The Union, Jun 22, 2023

Lisa Marie White beat the odds.

 
According to the National Library of Medicine, a division of the National Institutes of Health, the average life expectancy for a homeless woman is 52 years.
 
Lisa lived to 55.
 
Monday, March 27, she was found dead in front of her tent covered by a sleeping bag in bushes in Brunswick Basin. She had been dead for several days.
 
The Nevada County Sheriff’s Office Coroner Final Report of Investigation determined her death was natural. The report said she experienced “sudden cardiac death due to arteriosclerotic and hypertensive cardiovascular disease due to chronic heavy ethanolism [alcoholism] and chronic heavy methamphetamine use.”
 
The autopsy was grim. Toxicology showed she had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.226 and a laundry list of other prescription and street drugs in her system.
 
It gets worse. “There are multiple red-purple contusions up to 3 inches in greatest dimension in various stages of healing overlying the legs, thighs and abdomen. There is an irregular, red-purple, 4-inch contusions of the medial aspect of the right breast and a few red-purple contusions in various stages of healing over the upper chest and arms.”
 
Such injuries imply that Lisa was the victim of recent domestic violence, and this is confirmed in the 19-page coroner’s report.
Nevada County Sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Beauchamp wrote the incident report, which included interviews with Casey Davey, R.N., and social worker Celeste LaPedus of the Nevada County H.O.M.E. Team.
 
The Homeless Outreach and Medical Engagement Team comprises specialists from Nevada County, Hospitality House, Advocates for Mentally Ill Housing and Turning Point to work with chronically homeless people.
 
Based on his interview with Davey, Beauchamp wrote: “The decedent had multiple Traumatic Brain Injuries due to domestic violence. The decedent also suffered from PTSD and depression they believed was brought on by the domestic violence.”
 
Davey and LaPedus told Beauchamp that White was missing from her motel room when Davey went to check on her Friday, March 24.
 
An email and multiple calls to the H.O.M.E. Team were not returned.
 

In memoriam 

 
I did not know Lisa White, but more than 10 years ago, I knew another homeless woman. I’m ashamed I don’t remember her name. I think it was Gretchen.
 
Back then, I was working as a staff monitor for Hospitality House, before Utah’s Place. Every afternoon at 4 p.m., guests would gather at our house on Church Street in Grass Valley. We would bus them to sleep in a different church every night.
Gretchen told me she was a tough “bull-dyke.” Her words. I agreed she could probably beat me up. (The only fights I’ve ever won are the ones I talked my way out of.)
 
When we first met, I yelled at her. She thought I yelled at her because she was gay. No, I yelled at her because she kept swearing in the churches.
 
We never became close friends, but we began to like each other a little. We were really close to getting her and her girlfriend into an apartment.
 
One night, Gretchen didn’t show up for the bus. The next morning, she showed up naked and dead in a park. Apparently, she had a reputation for getting high on meth and running around naked.
 
The authorities didn’t seem all that concerned. Just another dead homeless woman. I’ve known other homeless people who died, but I took Gretchen’s death hard. I should have followed up to find out what had happened to her, and I still regret that I didn’t.
 
So, when Lisa showed up dead, and I saw how deeply it affected some of her homeless friends, I filed a public records request for the sake of the memory of both Lisa and Gretchen.
 

No judgement

 
No doubt, some people will shrug off Lisa’s wretched demise with a heartless another-one-bites-the-dust attitude. She was a bad person. She got what she deserved.
 
Nobody deserves homelessness. Nobody deserves domestic violence.
 
The tempting assumption is to say their drug abuse caused their homelessness, but it could be that homelessness and violence caused their addiction.
 
Stating the obvious, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, said, “The stress of experiencing homelessness may exacerbate previous mental illness and encourage anxiety, fear, depression, sleeplessness and substance use.”
 
Of course, it does. Homelessness is physically and psychologically traumatic. The damage can be deep and permanent – and fatal.
 
Deputy Beauchamp examined Lisa Marie White’s motel room. “I located a letter on the bed that appeared to show remorse. I was unable to read the whole thing due to handwriting, but there was a part that stated ‘by the time you are reading this, I should be dead…’”

Sierra Roots awarded Upstate Creative Corps Grant

 Author: Tom Durkin

PHOTO BY TOM DURKIN

 

Sierra Roots board member and lunch manager Dianne Weichel serves Monte Cazazza at last year’s Thanksgiving lunch. Cazazza, an outspoken and much-loved homeless advocate, died unexpectedly June 29. He was a key member of the Sierra Roots/no Place to Go Project. A celebration of his life is being planned.

“We’re delighted and excited,” said Susan Rice. “This a big, proactive step for Sierra Roots.”

 

June 30, the Upstate California Creative Corps announced a grant award of $69,696 to Sierra Roots for the Sierra Roots / No Place to Go Project.

 

“Our creative team will produce a documentary and public awareness campaign on homelessness and alternative housing,” said Rice, who is the executive director of Sierra Roots.

The Nevada City-based nonprofit has been feeding and clothing chronically homeless and unhoused citizens of Nevada County since 2011.

 

A pilot project of the California Arts Council, the California Creative Corps is modeled after the WPA (Works Progress Administration) of the 1930s. The WPA employed creatives like folksinger Woody Guthrie and photographer Dorothea Lange to inspire and document the hard times of the Great Depression.

 

The mission of the California Creative Corps is the same today: Hire working creatives to use art in any form to improve and validate the lives of the least-fortunate residents of California.

 

“We are very grateful to the Upstate California Creative Corps and the Nevada County Arts Council for this opportunity to be the change we want to see,” Rice said.

 

SOCIAL JUSTICE

 

“We are a relationship-based organization that treats our homeless participants with dignity, respect, and we pass no judgement,” said Dianne Weichel, clothing and lunch manager for Sierra Roots. “Tom Durkin fit right into that.”

 

Sierra Roots has hired Durkin as the creative director of the Sierra Roots/no Place to Go Project.

 

“The videos he’s shot of our guests show their humanity,” said Weichel, who is also a member of the board of directors. “They touch your heart.”

 

Earlier this year, Durkin asked the board of directors if they would apply for an Upstate California Creative Corps grant if he wrote the application, Rice said. “He wanted to do a documentary and public awareness campaign on homeless people and their best options for housing, which is usually illegal.”

 

She said the board was skeptical at first, but Durkin was persuasive. In addition to an MFA in Tv-film Production from UCLA, he has lived experience of homelessness, has a track record of homeless advocacy, is a professional writer and photographer, and like thousands of people in this county, he lives illegally in his trailer because there is, literally, no place to go during this statewide homeless/ housing crisis.

 

“It’s all about housing for the people by the people,” said Durkin, who is also a columnist and freelance reporter for The Union. “We’re saying it in songs, on T-shirts, videos, articles, poetry, Powerpoints, meetings, social media, on the radio and in a documentary.

 

“Our goal is to work with the cities and counties, and community stakeholders to take an all-hands approach to finding new and compassionate ways to end homelessness and the lack of housing,” he said. “Nevada County could become a model for the state.”

 

STIFF COMPETITION

 

Sierra Roots was one of 81 grantees chosen from a highly competitive field of almost 300 applicants from 19 counties in the Upstate division of the California Creative Corps, according to an announcement from the Upstate headquarters in Nevada City.

The Corps is divided into 14 divisions throughout the state. The Nevada County Arts Council was charged with overseeing the Upstate competition, which announced $3.38 million in grants to be disbursed in the coming weeks.

 

“Funded projects serve Upstate’s most vulnerable communities, those identified via the California Healthy Places Index and other valuable local data sources,” the Upstate office said in a press release.

 

Furthermore, “Grantees are collectively part of a media, outreach, and engagement campaign designed to increase awareness for issues such as public health, water and energy conservation, climate mitigation, and emergency preparedness, relief and recovery … through social practice and an array of artforms,”

 

The release concluded, “The California Arts Council views the California Creative Corps program as a job creation and human infrastructure development opportunity.”

 

A complete list of Upstate California Creative Corps grantees can be found at www.upstatecreativecorps.org/grantees.

 

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