Sitting in her tent on an East Village street corner, Henria Wilson gently probes her swollen left knee. In her low Barbados drawlreduced almost to a whisper from throat surgeryshe worries that the pain might mean bone cancer.
Its rare to see the 64-year-old without a hospital wristband, a friend of hers pointed out. For the past couple of years, Wilsons been battling ovarian cancer that has metastasized throughout her body. Because her immune system has been compromised by chemotherapy, staying in shelters is not an option, she explained. She said that shes been on the waiting list for Section 8 housing for five or six years, and even a letter from her doctor hasnt helped expedite the process. Wilson used to live in a residential hotel, but shes been on the street since a lengthy hospital stay forced her to give up her room. So, when she found herself just out of the hospital and without a place to stay on a rainy night, she set up a tent. A police officer came by and told Wilson that his supervisor wanted the tent removed.
Wilsons response: Hell have to come and impound it.
Since then, shes been able to sleep in the tent without incidentas have two friends who serve as her protectors and caretakers and whove set up tents next to hers. The trio keeps the sidewalk space they occupy spotlessWilson requires her companions to sweep the area before they bed down and put any trash into a trash bag shes got hanging from a treeand shes chased away drug dealers, telling them firmly, You need to go home. Shes declared the area a drug-free, alcohol-free zone, she said. Her presence has had such an impact, someone recently, anonymously, dropped off a brand-new tent.
Every morning, Wilsons up by 5 a.m. to make sure the three tents are down by 5:30the time that anyone sleeping in a public area has move along. Then its over one block to wait two-and-a-half hours for the Neil Good Day Center to open. There, Wilson has access to shower and bathroom facilities, but once the day center closes, there are no public restrooms nearby, so a bucket in her tent serves as a makeshift toilet. Its not ideal, but its the only option.
Wilson, whos a stickler about cleanliness, keeps a small bottle of disinfectant spray on-hand and gives the tents a Lysol once-over each day.
As of press time, Wilsons doctors hadnt yet determined the cause of her knee problems (she had two appointments last week), but she has an endoscopy and colonoscopy scheduled for mid-May, both on the same day (Medi-Cal covers her bills). Theyre going to run a camera all through me, she joked, as she paged through instructions on how to prepare for each procedure.
[Gods] not going to give you too much that you cant handle, she says. But sometimes I just get so tired.