The death of a 72-year-old homeless woman on the streets of Astoria this week rattled city officials and advocates, leading them to question what more could have been done to help her.

Gail Griffey died of natural causes on Tuesday, according to police. She had been reported unconscious and unresponsive that night outside of T&C Home Furnishings on Commercial Street and was pronounced dead at Columbia Memorial Hospital.

Griffey was a familiar face downtown. When she lived in the Astor Building on 14th Street, she took long walks through town most mornings and was a regular at several coffee shops. She and her longtime boyfriend, Charlie McKenzie, became homeless in 2018 after being evicted from their apartment.

Warming center

The Astoria Warming Center is an emergency shelter for the homeless on cold and rainy nights.

The morning of the day she died, Griffey told Sam McDaniel, the owner of the Astoria Downtown Market, where Griffey was a regular customer, that a cough was bothering her. It was the most he had ever heard her complain about her situation.

Annie Martin, the president of the Astoria Warming Center’s board, also saw her not long before her death.

Griffey’s moods could swing dramatically — Astoria police report numerous contacts with her for misdemeanors and she faced charges after throwing a cup of coffee at a convenience store employee and striking the woman. But many knew her as friendly and sweet-natured.

When Martin saw her, “she seemed back to her old self”: cheerful, optimistic, caring. Griffey, Martin said, would give someone the coat off of her back if they needed it.

“No matter what she did, she always made me smile later,” McDaniel said. “I can’t not love Gail, even though she would have her mood swings.”

City officials seeking to address homelessness are not sure what to make of Griffey’s death.

Mayor Bruce Jones, along with Police Chief Geoff Spalding, leads a task force investigating potential solutions to problems experienced by the homeless.

The fact that an unsheltered woman in her 70s died on the streets of Astoria is very troubling, Jones said. But he isn’t sure that any of the tools or resources being developed by the task force — including a possible homeless liaison — would have been useful to Griffey.

She visited Clatsop Community Action often, taking advantage of certain services but resisting others that may have provided her with long-term solutions to her homelessness.

For Jones, the question is: Was her death preventable, or was it just her time regardless of her living conditions?

“Was that a preventable death? Could anything be done to change that outcome and what, if anything, could we do to prevent that situation in the future?” the mayor said. “There’s a lot we don’t know.”

Research shows people who are homeless often have a shorter life expectancy than people who are housed, Spalding noted, but he also wonders if her death was preventable.

“Everything that I’m hearing points to the fact that she didn’t want the services, she was happy with her way of life. And minus any mental health concerns, I’m not sure what people could have done for her that she would have wanted,” the police chief said.

‘Community failed her’

For others, the situation is more clear-cut.

“I think we as a community failed her,” said Mary Docherty, the director of Riverfolk, a nonprofit that works with the homeless to secure state identification cards.

Docherty had known Griffey for a number of years. Like many others in the community, she knew about her eviction when it happened. For a while, Griffey and McKenzie slept in building alcoves on Duane Street.

Though Griffey never asked Docherty for help, Docherty wishes now that she had done more.

“They’re saying you can’t force them into housing, but, yeah, I still think we dropped the ball,” Docherty said. “I’d run into her downtown and we’d trade hugs and we’d talk and then I’d go home. I don’t feel good about that anymore.”

“I think we just assumed she’d take care of it.”

A tenant supervisor at the Astor Building was unable to confirm when or why Griffey and her boyfriend were evicted. Griffey told people they had been evicted for smoking inside the apartment.

According to Viviana Matthews, the executive director of Clatsop Community Action, the agency provided Griffey with rental assistance up until April 2018. Griffey appears to have become homeless in May 2018.

After Griffey was evicted, she couldn’t get back on her feet. In some ways, it was like she didn’t fully realize what had happened, McDaniel said.

“She didn’t understand the situation she was in,” he said. “She was so optimistic that everything was OK.”

When people asked her if she needed help finding a place to live, Griffey would assure them that something was on the horizon, and that she was going to be inside again soon.

McDaniel and his mother were trying to convince Griffey and McKenzie to fill out an application for housing, but couldn’t get the couple to follow through.

Griffey would have qualified for housing offered through Clatsop Community Action and had a small income through Social Security, according to Matthews. But though Griffey visited the agency daily, even twice a day, to get coffee or other supplies or just to talk, she would not sit down and complete the necessary assessment with caseworkers. Every time they asked, she would put them off.

“She would say, ‘Yeah, I’ll come back on Wednesday,’ or some other day,” Matthews said. “She would not do the assessment.”

‘I did not deserve this’

Roger Hayes, an Astoria artist who has worked as an alcohol and drug counselor, interviewed Griffey in a video he uploaded to YouTube in January.

In the video, Griffey talks about living in Pendleton and Florence. She exudes positivity, even as she leans on a grocery cart that contains her possessions.

“I’ve got a real good sleeping bag and I’m just fine,” she tells Hayes, emphasizing that she doesn’t need that much to get by. It is her first time being homeless, she says, but people have been giving her food and money.

“How content are you on a scale of 1 to 10,” Hayes asks.

“3,000!” Griffey replies.

“Nothing ever gets me down,” she adds. “I don’t worry … I take it one day at a time. Forward march.”

But in a video Hayes uploaded several months later, Griffey was in a less-positive mood.

“I feel fine,” she says, “but I’m pissed off, period. I did not deserve this.”

“I’m 71 years old,” she says, “and I shouldn’t be out here wandering around in the dark.”

The day after Griffey died, two Astoria police officers stopped to check in with her boyfriend outside of the Astoria Library.

McKenzie told them he didn’t know what to do — he felt lost. He talked about Griffey.

“Everybody counts,” he said urgently.

Yes, the officers repeated, everybody counts.

“She was probably the sweetest person I’ve ever known,” McKenzie said Friday.

They stuck together even after becoming homeless.

“I’m not going to let anything happen to Gail,” he said, “but I guess I don’t have to worry about that anymore. I loved her with all my heart.”

Katie Frankowicz is a reporter for The Astorian. Contact her at 971-704-1723 or kfrankowicz@dailyastorian.com.

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(4) comments

Barry Plotkin

I want to add one additional comment to what I said earlier. The article mentions that Gail was evicted from The Astor Building and that the tenant manager was not able to provide details. One should not infer from that there was anything improper about the eviction or that the tenant manager is stonewalling. In Oregon, the Landlord-Tenant law is very strict about eviction, and there is a very detailed legal process that a landlord must go through in order to effect an actual eviction. This process is "biased" toward the tenant, and an eviction cannot occur without a court hearing. With respect to The Astor Building in particular, I am personally aware that within the past two years, no eviction is initiated there without consultation with a local Astoria attorney who is a specialist in landlord-tenant law. I also believe that the tenant manager is prohibited by law or policy from discussing publicly any details that might be considered confidential or personal with respect to a particular eviction case.

Micah Barron

Alright, but surely the folks at The Astor Building profited when Gail was forced out and her appartment was listed at market price. I wonder whether or not they would have gone through so many leaps and bounds to evict if they didn't stand to make such a hefty profit. I don't buy for a second that the leasing of formerly subsidized appartments for $200 a night on Airbnb has nothing to do with this.

Barry Plotkin

Ms. Buck's comment regarding Gail's death is very heartfelt and asks all the right questions. Between her comment and the article, all the issues surrounding homelessness in our area are exposed. Could her eviction have been avoided? Did she have treatable physical or mental health problems? Was she sleeping outside in an alcove when there was a shelter bed available? In Gail's case, these questions are particularly troubling because she was known to all the local volunteer groups and governmental agencies whose mission is to serve and protect the homeless. Now, after her tragic death, these people are asking what might they have done differently to save her. In Gail's case, the answer is complicated by the fact that built into the systems and processes which we have in place to assist the homeless is the issue of the autonomy of the individual to make personal decisions about what services they are willing to accept and when to accept them. Gail's case is further complicated by her mood swings. Even when there is an obvious need that the "system" can offer is extended to a homeless person, and the person either discounts or dismisses that need or refuses to accept the service offered, there is truly nothing that can be done. The individual's right to decide for herself what she wants, needs, or will accept is paramount in the process. Now, there is much more that we can and should do, and some of those things are being addressed and some are not, but ultimately there is nothing that can meaningfully be done in the absence of a person's willingness to accept the help offered. It is both heartbreaking and frustrating that this is the case, but the alternative - the denial of the free-will choice to the individual - will not be superseded in our society, and we probably don't want it to be. I am personally greatly saddened by Gail's death, as I know many others are, too. But the reality is that we cannot save everyone. We can only save those who, when we reach out to help them, take our hands and reach back.

Christina Buck

I know we failed her. We only seem to care when a homeless person dies. Why not care about them when they are alive? A few weeks ago I spent an entire day calling every agency and church I could find in Seaside trying to find a way to help homeless people who are often trying to camp on the property of the building in which I live. Not one church in Seaside offers any warming station or shelter. There is NO PLACE in Seaside that offers the homeless ANYTHING.

Everyone I called told me there are places in Astoria that help the homeless (well people are not going to walk from Seaside to Astoria in the middle of the night and if they did they might not make it there and even if they did, there is a 5PM curfew on a very limited number of beds). And I was told the agencies that will help people won't help people if they have other problems (like they're alcoholics or drug addicts or sick and yet that is likely the majority of the homeless)?!

Our society in general has failed so many people and continues to fail them on a daily basis. People are struggling, barely hanging on, one action or incident away from being homeless. We blame the homeless and vilify them and believe they are homeless by choice. We need to house the homeless, period. Housing the homeless is the one and only way to help them. Housing the homeless (not just providing a shelter bed when it is cold) is the only way any city in this country has been able to work toward truly eradicating homelessness.

It is only once people are housed that we have the space to help them with their other needs, needs that contribute to them being homeless in the first place. Why is it acceptable to put a 70 year old woman out on the streets? Why is it acceptable to put anyone out on the streets? Can you truly imagine what it must have been like for that woman? She would still be alive if someone said, here, here is a place to live. This article about paperwork and her not following through shows that we so easily prefer to blame people for their own circumstances because it makes us feel better. Well, if she had just done this then this would not have happened. The truth of the matter is if one person, any person, any of the numerous people who interacted with her on any given day had truly worked to put her in an apartment she would still be alive. Is there more the community could have done for her? YES. Is there more the community could do for all of the homeless? YES.

Our society as a whole, this entire nation, needs to take a good long look at ourselves and face the facts that we are willingly and purposely allowing tens of millions of people to live on the streets. This is not in any way acceptable. Not in this country. Not in a country with such obscene wealth.

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