By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Second in a series
Jessie and Clara Gillespie, an elderly couple surrounded by transients in the historic Oakland-University Park neighborhood, do not always confront the homeless with pistols and shotguns. When they are not protecting themselves from burglary and violence, they admit they are overwhelmed with questions.
"We saw this man with two babies and we tried to help," said Jessie. "He said some woman gave him the babies. He didn't even know whose kids they were."
Overcoming their shock, the Gillespies did what they could.
"I bathed those kids and went out and bought them diapers," recalls Clara. "Next thing you know, this woman claiming to be their mother showed up and took the kids back from this man."
The Gillespies didn't know what to do. It's a feeling they often get dealing with the hundreds of homeless who are their neighbors in the area of 15th Avenue and Van Buren.
"There was this young woman who was clearly a mentally ill girl. This was about a year and a half ago," said Jessie. "You think we could get her help? We absolutely could not. I noticed her out there [in nearby Woodland Park] dancing and singing. I went in and got her a cold Coke; it was so hot, hot, hot, in the summer. She said she was waiting for Elvis."
The elderly couple's contact with the disturbed young woman went on for months. The Gillespies produced a list of the various agencies they called, none of whom was able to provide aid.
"She had to sign an agreement to be helped but she just wouldn't do it," said Jessie, referring to the law that says virtually no one, even someone clearly mentally ill, can be committed without their own authorization.
Amazed at the concept that insane people cannot get treatment unless they are sane enough to recognize their own insanity and are willing to put it in writing, Gillespie concluded his story, "A man and a woman came out from one of the agencies and asked if we wanted to keep her."
The crazy woman waiting for Elvis is one of thousands dumped onto the streets of America during the deinstitutionalization of the insane that occurred from the mid-Sixties through the early Seventies.
The obligatory stories on the homeless around the holidays seldom mention the insane. In an endless repetition of the media hype of the past few years, the transient population profiled for Thanksgiving is always the family down on its luck but eager for that next forty-hour-a-week paycheck. And while families constitute a portion of the homeless, they are a minority.
Judy Almy, program coordinator for the homeless with Phoenix South Community Mental Health Services, estimates that as much as 40 percent of the transient population are alcoholics or drug abusers and another 40 percent are mentally ill.
When Arizona deinstitutionalized the mentally ill, the population at the state hospital dropped from 1,500 to 500. The locals were joined on Valley boulevards by mentally ill snowbirds like Wolfman.
Wolfman is looking good. He's got on a clean, sporty shirt that he wears with a new pair of shorts. His sandals cover clean feet. If his face were caked in dried blood and dirt, his deep-set eyes might make you nervous, but today they twinkle in contrast against a very full and neatly trimmed beard. His hair is perfect. He has a hole in the middle of his head where a tooth ought to be, but that little gap is not enough to stop you from noticing his charm.
Wolfman is nuts and has the shock therapy to prove it.
He's been confined to mental institutions in California, Kentucky, Texas, and Florida, where he was a frequent guest.
"I grew up in Miami," said Wolfman. "They say the Cubans ruined Miami but that ain't true. The Cubans were hard workers. It was the Colombians. One of my best friends was this Peruvian guy who was killed by a Colombian who hit him in the head with an ax. All over buying a girl a drink."
Wolfman began running away from home at the age of fourteen. He worked after school at a carnival but was soon working full time at a race track. By the time he was eighteen, he was diagnosed as manic-depressive.
For decades Wolfman has migrated from the street to the state hospital to the highway.
At a Salvation Army in Mobile, Alabama, he hooked up with his latest traveling partner and slowly they hitchhiked toward the warmth of Phoenix's sun.
"Now this guy was crazy," said Wolfman. "Because I was from Florida and because his ex-wife was living in Florida, he thought she'd sent me to Mobile to find him. The guy was a little paranoid and very angry about everything."
Wolfman's partner, who'd also logged time in state hospitals, finally stepped over the line in Willcox, Arizona. During a brief argument, Wolfman found himself being choked to death by his younger and larger traveling companion. After going limp, Wolfman was released from his friend's death grip. The next morning Wolfman set out by himself for Phoenix.