Craig and Lisa Smith are running out of time. They're dying. He has congestive heart failure and a cancer eating at his kidney. She has a severe respiratory illness and spends her nights plugged into an oxygen concentrator. But that's not what they're talking about today, sitting in the bed where they spend most of their lives these days in a cramped but tidy apartment at 833 H St. in Eureka.
A few days before, the city of Eureka had served the couple — and all other tenants of the long deteriorated apartment building owned by Floyd and Betty Squires — with a notice to vacate, telling them the city was condemning the property due to hazardous electrical wiring. Everyone has to be out by 6 a.m. Jan. 22. Because of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, tenants were given four business days to relocate their lives. For the Smiths, the eviction notice came three days after they'd paid the month's rent. The Squireses haven't returned subsequent phone calls, they say.
Nikki Lang sits on the corner of the bed. She's a social worker with Resolution Care, the palliative care team set up by Dr. Michael Fratkin a few years back aimed at helping people live out their lives comfortably and on their own terms in the face of serious — often terminal — illness.
Lang tells the couple that the city will be giving them $1,600 in relocation assistance funds — money it will later look to recoup from the Squireses, adding yet another layer to the years-old legal battle between the notorious landlords and the city.
"How is that help?" Lisa Smith, 54, asks to no one in particular, eyes fixed on the bed in front of her. "Who is going to physically carry this stuff out? Where is it all going to go? We're looking at the ends of our lives and it shouldn't be like this. We worked for a living, raised families. We're good people. We should just be left in peace."
The Smiths can be seen as a knot in the middle of the ongoing tug of war between the Squireses and the city, a battle that played out painstakingly slowly in the Humboldt County Courthouse over the course of about six years before accelerating rapidly in the last 12 months, during which the city has condemned numerous Squires properties, dubbing them threats to public health. The Squireses recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and it's clear the shuttered properties have played a role, with the closures resulting in almost $19,000 in lost monthly rent for the couple, a number that will spike to more than $25,000 with the inclusion of the H Street property.
And in Humboldt County, where almost 30 percent of households make less than $30,000 a year and homelessness rates dwarf the national average, the Smiths can also be seen as a symbol of how poverty and poor health feed off one another, creating a cascade of impacts both personal and communal.
Reached by phone, Fratkin says Resolution Care has somewhere between 20 and 30 patients for whom housing insecurity is a "dominant issue" in their healthcare, the "red hot fire" that can devour their quality of life and make it nearly impossible to stabilize and even harder to heal. Consequently, finding patients housing has become a big part of what Lang does.
She helped the Smiths move into the H Street apartment back in July and also helped their upstairs neighbors, Don Brown and Debora Bronson, find their apartment, going so far as to cover the security deposit.
Brown, a Missouri native who says he's been out on his own since he was 14 and homeless for much of the last 20 years, is also in critically failing health. He's suffered five pulmonary embolisms, two strokes and 18 deep vein thrombosis, in addition to having a fully clogged artery in his heart, he says, leaning back in the lounge chair where he spends most of his days in constant pain while keeping his legs elevated so his veins don't burst and create nasty sores.
A television screen across from him offers a slideshow of nature scenes — a redwood forest, the sun setting over the ocean, a waterfall. Brown surveys the small apartment he and Bronson pay $625 a month for — it's immaculately clean, if sparsely decorated. A few hats hang from the wall and a couple of plastic decals — one of an owl perched on a tree branch in the forest, the other of a tropical beach — add some color. An American flag and another yellow Don't Tread on Me one act as curtains. The place isn't much, he concedes. When the couple first moved in it was missing a window. It stayed that way, covered with a sheet of cardboard, for a few months. And the hallway was filled with drug users at all hours of the day and the night, he says. But now, a year and a half later, the window's been fixed and the addicts have been run off, he says, and the place is home.
Brown says the circulatory problems with his legs intensified after he and Bronson arrived in Eureka. They were staying at the Eureka Rescue Mission and had to vacate the place first thing every morning, meaning he was on his feet all day, his belongings in a pack on his back. He was in and out of the hospital a few times a month and almost lost a foot to infection. Then during one hospital stay, a doctor connected him with Fratkin and Resolution Care. He hasn't been admitted to the hospital since.
"Resolution Care helped us get in here, helped us find furniture," he says, adding that Lang and others have gotten him a few reclining chairs over the last 18 months that help him rest comfortably with his legs elevated. "I know half the time they help me it comes out of their own pockets. I see one of their doctors every two weeks and they're always just a phone call away."
Fratkin says part of what Resolution Care is about is not looking at healthcare as simply a matrix of treatments and medications but of desired outcomes with the goal of giving people the highest quality of life possible.
"For Don, the value that we provided him — we gave him a lounge chair that elevated his legs," Fratkin says, adding that one of Resolution Care's social workers found the chair on Craigslist. "That's what kept him out of the hospital, so that's what we did. That's also what made him happy and that's what made him trust us, because we showed up when he told us what was important to him."
Brown doesn't know what's next. It's doubtful Resolution Care will be able to find him another place — most rental units in town are let out by property management companies and the Squireses remain pretty much the only landlords who will rent to people with limited incomes, no references and no, or limited, deposits. He's talking to Bronson about buying some backpacks and preparing to hit the streets again, probably to catch a bus or a plane out of Humboldt County.
"I can't walk," he says, pulling a hand from under the comforter that's keeping him warm and running it through his gray beard. "I'm in pain all the time. I don't know what I'm going to do. To be honest, I'm scared and that's not an easy thing for me to say."
His voice trails off then he continues: "I don't mind difficult things. Life's been difficult from the get-go. I don't complain. It's supposed to be hard. But this thing is like they wait until you get on your feet then pull the rug right out."
Downstairs, Lisa and Craig Smith feel the same. The couple met a few years back in the Devil's Playground where both had ended up, Lisa after escaping an abusive relationship of 22 years and Craig after his childhood home burnt to the ground, killing a friend of his and destroying everything he owned. It was pouring rain and Lisa came to a friend's tent in tears. The friend wasn't there but Craig was.
"I said, 'Sit your ass down and talk to me,'" he recalls with a chuckle.
"I did and we've been together since," she says, adding that her tent in the Palco Marsh became known as Love Shack 1, his Love Shack 2.
They spent 18 months there together until Craig's health started failing. Then they moved into the Budget Motel. His heart disease got worse and he was taken away in an ambulance. Three days later, Lisa Smith says the city came knocking with 72-hour notices to vacate the premises.
"That's when Resolution Care stepped in," she says, adding that it secured the couple a place in the Serenity Inn and then, in July, into the H Street apartment.
The couple has made the place their own, collecting pieces of furniture here and there where they — or Resolution Care — could find them. The wall is decorated with plastic flowers and carefully hung picture frames, some of which still have the factory's placeholder photos in them. An old black and white movie plays on a widescreen television perched on an entertainment center across from the bed. The television might not seem necessary, Craig Smith says, but "when you're in this room all day, every day and everything is about (do not resuscitate) orders," his voice trails off and he doesn't finish the thought.
Lang rises to leave. She knows the couple well. In addition to helping them find housing, she checks in regularly to make sure they have what they need, whether it be a piece of furniture or a trip to the grocery store. She even helped Craig and Lisa hold a commitment ceremony last year. It was in Sequoia Park, where they stood in the gazebo, he in a spotless white shirt and a blue tie with a musical note on it and she in a dark dress, her hair pulled back and a rose bouquet in her arms. Lang tells the couple that she's working to find them another apartment but — with the Squireses out of the equation — she's having little luck. She did find a two-bedroom, but it's more than they can afford.
"Would you guys be open to house sharing?" she asks.
"We're in the middle of dying, Nikki," Lisa replies quietly, breaking Lang's eye contact. "We need our own peace."
Whether the Smiths, Brown and Bronson will find the peace they thought they'd caught hold of remains to be seen. Neither the city nor the Squireses were immediately available to comment for this story. Lang asks that anyone who wants to help them — whether it be with a room for rent, a storage unit, a moving truck or even a strong back — call Resolution Care at 442-5683.
Editor's note: The woman referred to in this story as Lisa Smith has a different legal last name. She asked that we use Smith instead — and not run her photo — because she remains afraid of her abusive ex.