Sitting in her tent on an East Village street corner, Henria Wilson gently probes her swollen left knee. In her low Barbados drawl—reduced almost to a whisper from throat surgery—she worries that the pain might mean bone cancer.
It’s rare to see the 64-year-old without a hospital wristband, a friend of hers pointed out. For the past couple of years, Wilson’s 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 she’s been on the waiting list for Section 8 housing for five or six years, and even a letter from her doctor hasn’t helped expedite the process. Wilson used to live in a residential hotel, but she’s 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.
Wilson’s response: “He’ll have to come and impound it.”
Since then, she’s been able to sleep in the tent without incident—as have two friends who serve as her protectors and caretakers and who’ve set up tents next to hers. The trio keeps the sidewalk space they occupy spotless—Wilson requires her companions to sweep the area before they bed down and put any trash into a trash bag she’s got hanging from a tree—and she’s chased away drug dealers, telling them firmly, “You need to go home.” She’s 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, Wilson’s up by 5 a.m. to make sure the three tents are down by 5:30—the time that anyone sleeping in a public area has move along. Then it’s 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. It’s not ideal, but it’s the only option.
Wilson, who’s 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, Wilson’s doctors hadn’t 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). “They’re going to run a camera all through me,” she joked, as she paged through instructions on how to prepare for each procedure.
“[God’s] not going to give you too much that you can’t handle,” she says. “But sometimes I just get so tired.”