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.
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.”