‘Nothing Less Than Angels’: Local Nonprofit Helps Elderly Widow Escape Homelessness
By Jeremy Childs, VC Star Reporter
Rose Burgess had no idea where to turn.
At 94, she was twice widowed. Her first husband, a Naval officer who fought in World War II, divorced her several years after returning home from the war. Her second husband, a U.S. Marines drill instructor, died in a car crash in 1959.
In spite of her circumstances, Burgess was able to find a way to live a stable life. In 2019, she sold her mobile home and moved in with her only daughter, Peggy Whelan, in Santa Paula.
Though her vision was failing and she was legally blind, Burgess leased a Subaru for Whelan to drive to help run errands. The two of them lived with three Chihuahuas, one of whom was a puppy named Snickers they adopted last December.
Less than a week later after they got the dog, on a cold winter morning, everything came crashing down.
Burgess awoke to find the Subaru running in the driveway — with her daughter unresponsive inside. The fire department confirmed her daughter died overnight, and Burgess was the one to discover her body.
“It was pretty horrible,” Burgess said. “From then on, my life just went downhill.”
Kami Gremillion, Burgess’ granddaughter, said Whelan suffered several health conditions, which may have contributed to her death. The sudden loss of Burgess’ caretaker meant she and her dogs had to find somewhere else to live.
“She couldn’t stay there alone. It wasn’t habitable,” Gremillion said.
After staying with a niece in Victorville for a few months, Burgess began going from one motel to the next. Her health rapidly deteriorated, but she did not pay much attention to it.
“I was really at the end of my rope,” Burgess said.
Although Burgess applied for aid from several organizations, she never qualified due to a base monthly income exceeding the government’s low-income threshold.
Desperate and fearing she would be put out on the street, Burgess decided to seek help. One night this past June, she walked into the Camarillo Police Department and told her story to Deputy Chris Dyer.
After hearing her speak, Dyer knew just who to contact: Gold Coast Veterans Foundation, a Camarillo-based nonprofit focusing on providing aid to at-risk veterans and their families.
“We are the county’s go-to mechanism to helping veterans on the street,” said Bob Harris, Gold Coast’s executive director.
Harris read Dyer’s email and knew this was not going to be a typical case.
“He identified her as the widow of a veteran who was homeless and needed housing,” Harris said.
“She really didn’t make any mistakes,” he continued. “It’s just that nobody really plans on living to 94.”
Harris put her in contact with Rafael Stoneman, a formerly homeless veteran who now leads their Mobile Veteran Outreach program. Overnight, Burgess was put into a new hotel, this time paid for by Gold Coast.
During the next two weeks, Stoneman helped Burgess get her life in order. The two went through her possessions stored between five storage centers and cleared through most of her belongings. He was able to return the Subaru to the dealer, saving Burgess $250 a month from a car she could not drive.
Harris described the process as “relentless engagement,” and by the end of the organization’s work with Burgess, over 20 different social service organizations had come to her aid.
Along with getting her possessions in order, Stoneman took Burgess to various senior facilities to find a long-term living situation. None of them fit right with Burgess until they visited The Bonaventure in the west end of Ventura.
“I told him he hit bingo,” Burgess said.
Not only could Burgess afford the Bonaventure’s monthly rent, but the facility provides three meals a day, laundry service and entertainment. Most importantly: They allowed animals.
Burgess and her three dogs have lived at the Bonaventure for a few months now, and she remains effusive with her gratitude for their help.
“I call him my angel. He saved my life,” Burgess said of Stoneman.
Burgess encourages anyone to donate to Gold Coast Veterans Foundation, particularly for their “Veterans’ Village” program, which aims to end veteran homelessness in Ventura County through building permanent housing.
“I was saved by a fantastic group of people,” Burgess said. “They have been nothing less than angels to me.”
Harris hopes those who hear Rose’s story and learn of those in similar positions can reach out and practice relentless engagement.
“If you really want to fix the world, go in there and fix the small details,” Harris said.
To learn more about Gold Coast Veterans Foundation, you can call 805-482-6550 or visit www.gcvf.org.
Source: VC Star article from November 24, 2021