The Palo Alto woman who died in Heritage Park on Saturday, Dec. 21, succumbed to complications from hypothermia, the Santa Clara County Coroner's Office said today.
Gloria Bush, 72, had spent her life helping persons with mental illness before being overtaken by her own, her family said.
Bush was the latest in a series of homeless people who have died from the frigid weather in Santa Clara County this month. Four others previously died in San Jose and other south county cities, according to the coroner.
Ironically, before she died, Bush had spent much of her life helping persons with mental illness and developmental disabilities.
She was very artistic. She liked to draw and enjoyed many crafts. She loved dogs, particularly dachshunds. And she was beautiful, her daughter stated in an email.
Bush was found dead in the shadow of St. Thomas Aquinas Church, lying next to the bench she frequented every day. The low temperature was 34 degrees at 6:47 a.m. that morning.
Bush's story tells the tale of the link between mental illness and homelessness. It illustrates how even a loving family sometimes cannot stop the downward spiral of a once vibrant, fully functioning member of society.
And it raises questions for her family about the limits current policy places on a family's ability to help a loved one, her daughter told the Weekly.
Bush had once been a daughter and wife. She was a mother, a sociologist and a Head Start program teacher. She married at 18, partly to escape an abusive mother. She put herself through college after she and her husband divorced. She was in her early 30s, and she graduated from San Jose State University with a degree in sociology, her daughter said.
She was the first person in her family receive a degree. When she graduated, she held several positions working with mentally ill and developmentally disabled people. She also became a hospice volunteer and a home-health nursing aide.
"My mother was a very kind and caring person and devoted herself to help others. As a child, I always felt so lucky to have her as my mother," her daughter said.
Bush was born in Fresno and lived there until the family moved to San Jose while she went to college. When she graduated, she and her daughter moved to Santa Cruz. It was her dream to live there, and she fit right in, her daughter said.
"I think those were perhaps her happiest times, and I will probably scatter her ashes in Santa Cruz," she said.
But Bush had mental health issues. She was hospitalized twice for them -- at 18 and then in her early 40s, her daughter said in a separate email shared with the Weekly.
"By the time she was in her 50s, her illness took over her life; she could not hold down a job, and she no longer trusted anyone close to her, and pushed them out of her life," she said.
About six or seven years ago, Bush stopped communicating with her daughter. They would mail each other each month between her daughter's visits to California, she said.
The daughter was very concerned and came down to California to try to find her. She once found her at one of the Breaking Bread locations, but she was shocked at how much her mother had deteriorated, she said.
"She did not believe I was her daughter, and she referred to me as an imposter. My husband and I tried to talk to her, but she became very agitated, so we left her alone. I was devastated.
"I later learned that she told people her daughter was dead, which would explain why she thought I was an imposter.
She said that she talked to several people about gaining conservatorship for her mother but she was told it would be nearly impossible.
"I understand laws are in place to protect an individual's right to freedom, but it is unfortunate how difficult it can be for family members to gain conservatorship for a mentally ill person. It is tragic that my mother's life ended this way," she said.
Two days before she died, members of a neighborhood group had tried to find Bush to offer her a motel stay and protect her from the elements. They sought out the nonprofit agency Momentum for Mental Health to help locate her after a concerned neighbor contacted the group, said Caryll-Lynn Taylor, executive director of Neighbors Helping Neighbors.
Neighbors Helping Neighbors has provided motel vouchers through donations to more than 50 homeless and at-risk individuals and families since the cold snap began on Dec. 2, she said. The group has also distributed emergency supplies to help prevent hypothermia, including thermal blankets and hand and foot warmers.
Staff members from InnVision Shelter Network also searched for Bush a couple of days prior to her death, after her daughter expressed concern about her welfare.
Martha Shirk, a volunteer at the Food Closet on Hamilton Avenue, knew Bush for about 14 years.
"Palo Alto is not to blame for Gloria's death. Mental illness is. Her disease made her unable to accept the services that are available. It's certainly debatable whether there are enough services. But short of locking her up and forcing her to accept treatment, which hasn't been the practice in the United States for the last half century, I don't know what more any of us could have done but treat her with kindness, as we did, and continue to offer to pave the way for her to come in from the cold," she said.
Bush was one of the major reasons why Shirk kept coming back to work at the Food Closet, she said.
"The Monday volunteers all loved her, and we vied for the privilege of waiting on her. She was grateful for every item of food she got, expressing delight when there was fresh fruit or a particularly luscious dessert from The Prolific Oven, which donates its unsold items to the Food Closet.
"After she injured a finger a few years ago and could no longer use a can opener, we saved canned foods with pop-top lids for her. And we tried repeatedly to interest her in a variety of shoes that would have provided more protection than the flip flops she wore year-round. A couple of weeks ago, one of her flip flops broke, and she walked around on one bare foot for awhile until some of us brought in new flip flops for her," she said.
Bush was a striking woman, with long chestnut-colored hair, gorgeous blue eyes, and a weathered face. She sewed bright patches on to her various backpacks and satchels, Shirk wrote in an email.
"There was something about Gloria that suggested that she had once had a regular life," she said.
Shirk had offered several times to call Bush's daughter to let her know that her mother was OK.
"But she wouldn't let me. Like many others, I repeatedly encouraged her to take advantage of the services at the Opportunity Center. But she had a streak of paranoia and a distrust of authority, and wouldn't go there.
"Over the last month, she seemed to age right before our eyes. She just seemed really tired. She was walking more slowly, and a deep gash on her forehead from a fall off a bench didn't seem to be healing well. (She had taped it shut.) I asked her for the umpteenth time if she wouldn't like to get herself on a list for housing, and she said, as she always did, 'No, I'm alright,'" Shirk said.
There are many other Glorias in Palo Alto, Shirk said, and she is sobered by that knowledge.
"I come home from my volunteer stint every Monday wondering whether I just saw some of our clients for the last time."
A memorial service for Bush will be held on Thursday, Dec. 26, at 11 a.m. at the Breaking Bread meal program at All Saints Episcopal Church, 555 Waverley St., Palo Alto.