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Old and sick and living in her car, determined homeless woman needs a real address

Giselle McDonald has been scraping for decades on her own, camping out in her battered Ford Escort, washing her hair in San Jose’s public restrooms and doing just fine, thank you very much.

But now, the frail 74-year-old has stomach cancer and lymphoma, life-threatening conditions that have left her a withered 92 pounds. Without a permanent place to live, McDonald cannot get the critical treatments that could save her life. Instead, night after night, alone in her car, she struggles to withstand waves of pain and nausea.

“I can’t keep anything down anymore,” she says, refusing an offer of water, which she says is too “harsh” for her tender stomach.

Looped around her car’s turn signal are a half-dozen white hospital identification bracelets. That way, if she “conks out,” the police will know she’s ill, not high on drugs or alcohol.

McDonald’s best chance of surviving the cancers is to get chemotherapy three times a week for 4 1/2 months, according to her oncologist at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. But she must have a stable living space because the treatment can render patients weak and violently ill.

Alerted to McDonald’s plight by a VMC social worker via email, advocates for the homeless are scrambling to find housing for her in Santa Clara County. But even in the 19th richest county, McDonald is just the tip of the iceberg. When homeless people are extremely needy and are also willing to help themselves, like she is, they often still can’t get assistance from a dedicated social service system that simply lacks precious resources.

“The waiting lists are miles long,” said David Cox, executive director of St. Joseph’s Family Center in Gilroy.


Last month, the county and the city of San Jose — in collaboration with Destination: Home, a public-private partnership seeking to end chronic homelessness — approved funding to house and provide supportive services to about 120 chronically homeless, disabled people like McDonald.

Advocates say the strategy is less expensive than paying for homeless shelters and frequent visits to hospital emergency rooms, inpatient psychiatric services and jails. San Francisco’s Housing First program reports it has reduced the cost of homeless safety net services from $61,000 a year per homeless person to $16,000 for those who receive housing. Santa Clara County, under a motion by Supervisor Mike Wasserman, will study in the coming year whether its new program saves money or not.

The Santa Clara County Housing Authority, which already helps about 2,000 homeless people annually, also plans to set aside an additional 108 vouchers at the request of local advocates.

But it may take awhile to get the vouchers into circulation — too long for McDonald in her race against cancer. In the meantime, every day is an ordeal. Her car is so crammed with blankets, clothing and books that she has to sleep sitting up. Her trunk leaks and the funky smell of mold makes her gag.

But the last thing McDonald wants is pity. Yes, she’s had a hard life, but she will proudly tell anyone that she’s always managed on her own — until now. Born in northern Germany, she spent her early difficult years in an orphanage and survived an abusive foster home.

“My biggest problem is dealing with people,” she says. “I cannot trust anyone.”

She moved to New York in 1961 with an American serviceman she planned to marry, but the couple soon broke up. In 1968, she landed in Menlo Park at the invitation of a former co-worker. At first, she had no trouble finding work — as a secretary or bookkeeper. But by her own admission, she was so hyper she couldn’t hold onto a job.

Then she was hit by a truck in 1984, which left her partially paralyzed. “That’s when,” she said, “it all went downhill.”


Surviving on a tiny disability check, she lived in a van for more than a decade. It wasn’t a bad life, she says. There were her precious cats — both feral and domesticated, whom she fed and cuddled. She pored over how-to books and relished teaching herself skills that ranged from knitting to plumbing.

At one point, she moved into a subsidized studio unit for the disabled. But after being chastised for filling the room with boxes of stuff she’d been keeping in storage, she moved out — vowing to remain independent for the rest of her life.

Now she has endured about all she can take since she learned the bad news about her health about a year ago. She’s tried to hold onto her solitude and use as little pain medication as possible.

“My mind is my best asset,” she says. “I can climb out of the worst hell if my mind is clear.”

But this particular hell is too much, even for her. Much as it pains her, she says she needs help.

“My whole life has been nothing but stress, and I’m tired,” she says, her ivory face briefly streaming with tears. “I want to have some peace and calm.”

What she’s hoping for is a one-bedroom place she can bring Precious, M’Honey, Missy and Butterball, her four cats, who are staying at a fellow cat lover’s house. She needs the space because she’ll have to be nursed through chemo by an attendant, whose salary will be paid for through in-home supportive services.

Like a child hoping for mercy, she promises she won’t fill her home this time with the things she’s kept stored all these years. And although she deeply regrets making “the many mistakes” that have led her to this situation, even on the worst nights, she hasn’t given up hope things will work out.

“I’m like a bulldog — tenacious,” McDonald said. “I have my teeth into life; I won’t let go.”

Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482.

Online extra

Scan this code on a smartphone to view a photo gallery of Giselle McDonald or view it athttp://photos.mercurynews.com