THE CAT LADY VANISHES

AFTER THE FORMER SOCIALITE WENT TO A HOMELESS SHELTER, EVERYONE THOUGHT SHE WAS IN DEEP TROUBLE. BUT HELEN WHITNEY'S STORY WAS NEVER THAT SAD--OR THAT TIDY.

No one is likely to forget for a long time what happened that day. That it was a hot, miserable July seemed only appropriate.

The eviction of Helen Whitney had taken months, and this, the final step, was beginning to seem like it might go on nearly as long. Helen was not about to leave on her own. There were clearly too many people to be comfortable in this tiny apartment, what with the police and the constable and the manager and the two men from Animal Control with their gunny sacks.

Everyone's patience was wearing thin.
And no one really wanted to do this, anyway. Helen had paid her rent, even paid it on time. Her apartment was clean. The cats had more or less organized themselves into groups, each group sharing a scratching pad and a few dishes of food. It was evident that there were rules in this household and that they were, for the most part, followed.

So why didn't Helen just follow the rules? If she'd left the cats behind and gone quietly to one of those places for "sprightly seniors," no one would have to feel bad. But Helen was not one to follow other people's direction.

Instead, she flitted around the apartment without any particular focus, still trying to hold her ground, halfheartedly packing her few things into a suitcase. But forced to leave behind a home and a family of sorts, there was little else that really mattered, except for maybe more time.

And there was no more time.
As Helen continued to fight with the clock, the men from Animal Control started capturing the cats, putting each into a separate gunny sack. The manager and the constable took a more serious tone, telling Helen she had to leave. The police finally physically removed Helen from her apartment, but not without one last fight.

She hurt her hand when it hit the door as she tried to struggle away from her escort.

Helen left her home in a patrol car, taken to a shelter on Van Buren Street to stay with strangers who had nothing in common except their lack of a permanent home.

The men from Animal Control bagged 28 cats. The manager and the constable consoled each other. They had done everything they could. There was no other choice. The law is the law. Somehow, Helen would be okay.

Helen had spent more than ten of her 74 years at the Park Lane apartments near 32nd Street and Roosevelt. Sometimes she took the bus, but usually Helen walked. No one ever really knew where she traveled, but she would often mention how quickly the pavement wore out her shoes.

Manuel Fierro was Helen's neighbor at Park Lane for more than a decade. In earlier years, he would hear classical music or the television coming from Helen's apartment downstairs. Sometimes she would invite him to dinner. He could never make it.

Every once in a while, Helen would show off her portfolio of pencil sketches, mostly of the cats. People who've seen the sketches say they're beautiful. Sometimes Helen talked about her "little cat family," the ones who shared her apartment.

She'd fed them, trained them and watched them grow up. And they, in turn, grew to dominate her household in the same way children do as they become teenagers. They determined Helen's schedule. They kept her from basic luxuries, like intact upholstery on the furniture. She watched them go out the door every day, never really knowing when they'd be back. But Helen was always there when they returned.

Outside Helen's insulated world, Park Lane slowly deteriorated around her. Young men on their way to nowhere lurked around Helen's apartment, until a neighbor shooed them away. Without maintenance, the buildings began to age. Things left outside were stolen.

In 1988, a young woman who lived across the hallway was found murdered. Helen installed more locks on the door.

After Park Lane slipped into receivership, it was purchased by a new owner who set about renovating the place, renamed it Palm Oasis and brought in new management.

Along with the face-lift and the cleanup came the enforcement of rules. Helen's many cats were no longer approved residents.

The neighbors were complaining.
Samantha Fox, manager of Palm Oasis, says she repeatedly explained to Helen that the cats would have to go, but Helen wouldn't hear of it. "We didn't want to do what we did," Fox says. "I've been in this business for 25 years, and this was the worst situation I've ever been in." Fox contacted a couple of relatives Helen had listed on her rental agreement. Helen was her own woman, they told Fox. She would choose her own path. Helen was furious at the interference.

Palm Oasis began legal action.
The court contacted a couple of government agencies. But they couldn't help Helen if she didn't want to play by their rules. Helen made every court appearance in the East Phoenix Justice Court. Judge Rebecca Macbeth remembers her as confident and articulate. Helen graciously explained to the court that she was responsible for the cats. She had spent a great deal of money caring for the cats in her neighborhood. And she could not abandon them.

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