Each morning, a variety of men and women pass through the doors of Napa’s Hope Resource Center in search for a place in a local homeless shelter that night. On Wednesday morning, one visitor looked no more or less weathered or beaten-down than the others – only more diminutive and older, decades older.
James Farrell arrived at 8:30 a.m., his 5-foot-tall frame arm in arm with a woman who had helped him find an interim place to sleep since a dispute with management cost the ukulele-playing 97-year-old his place at a local retirement home.
His white stubble giving his beret-topped face a careworn air, Farrell uncoupled from his friend and advocate, Carol Eldridge. In better times and better moods, he was ready with a jaunty tale filled with hundred-dollar words — but not this morning.
“Hangin’ in there,” he said wearily before walking into the Hope Center building on Fourth Street. Past the opened metal gates, a clerk would interview him to help decide whether he would have a place in the South Napa Shelter – with any luck, until month’s end.
“It’s not where he thought he’d end up, that’s for sure,” Eldridge said, suppressing a sigh. “Fought three wars, worked all sorts of different jobs his whole life – and all he wants to do is to sing and perform for people.”
Troubles at Redwood Residence
Over the past year, Farrell could not help but stand out among the men and women of the Redwood Retirement Residence – especially with his glib tongue or the four-stringed ukulele often in his hands.
With a visitor he was generous with tales from his past – as a Rhode Island youth performing in plays and dreaming of the big time, then as a World War II factory worker, a chauffeur for the British Consulate in Los Angeles, a Merchant Marine seaman during the Korean and Vietnam wars. He was equally eager to share a song as conversation, the notes to “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” tinkling from an instrument he had played from the age of 7.
But trouble between Farrell and the Redwood home’s staff was brewing, according to him and Eldridge, who was then a saleswoman there for Redwood’s parent company, Holiday Retirement.
“They were a bit intolerant of him,” said Eldridge, who left Redwood in April to join the advocacy group Senior Visionary Services of Sonoma. “He likes to sing and they’d say, ‘Don’t disrupt anyone else’s life with your singing.’”
The breaking point for Farrell came not from his music or his talking, he said, but from the staff’s claim of unclean conditions in his third-floor room.
“He’d spill his coffee; he’d open up a can of soup and it would splatter. He didn’t have the dexterity,” said Eldridge,” who added she periodically called a local maid service to Farrell’s room. “Not everyone will be a little Martha Stewart.”
In the first week of July, he said, he was given an eviction notice and a $1,500 bill for a professional cleaning of his unit — a sum he said nearly exhausted his savings and left him unable to pay the lease.
“I was evicted with expletives and salacious lies,” said Farrell, his face growing animated. “Ninety-nine percent of what (staff) said is untrue. One percent is true; I moved some chairs because people with walkers bumped tables and knocked my coffee over.”
A spokesman for Holiday Retirement was cautious about going into details on Farrell’s departure from the Redwood home, but confirmed its staff issued him a lease termination notice July 6, giving him 30 days to leave.
“He was definitely not evicted, but he was terminated for the condition of his apartment and for behavioral reasons,” Brian Fawkes said Thursday from company headquarters in Lake Oswego, Oregon.
Fawkes said he was unaware of Farrell’s claim of a $1,500 bill, but described an extensive cleaning job required after his departure. “The cleaning company said, ‘We need more sophisticated cleaners for this one,’” he said.
Meanwhile, Farrell and Eldridge have taken their grievances to Fair Housing Napa Valley, which advocates for tenants accusing their landlords of illegal evictions or other mistreatment, but Fair Housing staff said Thursday their work has stalled.
“I heard about this from Carol and didn’t have permission to talk to anybody” without receiving a complaint directly from Farrell, said Sherrie Brooks, a Fair Housing specialist. “So I had called him on his cell and left messages, but he never called me.”
Scrambling for a bed
After leaving the Redwood senior home behind, Eldridge scrambled to keep a roof over Farrell with his dwindling cash. They had arranged for his move to Piner’s Nursing Home – but his place would not open up until Aug. 1, after the next installment of his Social Security and veteran’s pensions.
There were a few nights at the Napa Motel 6, followed by four days at the Hostess House on the grounds of the Yountville Veterans Home he had called home for five years before moving to Redwood. But then, after one more day in another motel, the nonagenarian was down to his last $100 and a final option until August – the South Napa Shelter for the homeless.
“What I worry about is the kind of people who come into the shelter, if Jim will be vulnerable,” Eldridge said outside the Hope Center while a staff member interviewed Farrell inside. “This is not the safe, comfortable environment people of his age should be in.”
The shelter, operated by Community Action Napa Valley, imposes few requirements other than that guests stay sober and leave from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. But Linda S. Powers, who directs CANV’s housing and shelter services, admitted a 97-year-old was not the kind of homeless person envisioned for the program – and readily agreed he could stay two weeks, nearly bridging the gap to his scheduled admission at the Piner’s home.
“My question was if can he go out during the day like everyone is expected to, and the answer was yes,” said Powers, who is also a pastor for Napa’s First Presbyterian Church. “We will watch it day by day; we will play that by ear. If I have staff where he can be inside for part of a day based on his age, we will keep eye on him. … We’re not talking about 180 days, we’re talking about a couple of weeks, so of course we can do this.”
Although other seniors may not be as aged as Farrell, Powers pointed to his plight as a sign of the dangers for elderly Napans on fixed incomes with few or no people to help them. (An older sister who has sometimes sent Farrell money is now 100 and in failing health, and other relatives in Southern California are estranged, according to Eldridge.)
“They don’t have family, a support system, or money to pay for assisted living,” said Powers. “As a community, we have to think about what happens with these folks. They can’t be disposable.”
The kindness of others
Thirty minutes after entering the Hope Center, James Farrell emerged with good, or at least less dire, news: There would be a bed waiting for him at the shelter that night, and for the next two weeks.
“To the extent I don’t have funds, they’ll try to assist me in this problem,” he said. “I told (the interviewer) of my service record, sang a song for her – which she said was fabulous.”
With little privacy to be expected in the shelter, Eldridge had arranged for a friend to keep Farrell’s beloved ukulele until his move to Piner’s. It was one concern among much graver ones, but no less appreciated by the instrument’s owner.
“I don’t know what I’d be doing,” he said. “I’ve always been able to pick myself up, but without my friends, things would be unremittingly tough.”
Editor's Note: The original version of this story, and the one in print in the July 18 edition, misspelled Eldridge several times.