First came cancer. Then came an eviction notice — because of the diagnosis. Homelessness was up next for Jack Hendrix.
Which for Hendrix, a 60-year-old disabled house painter with no savings, would probably be a death sentence, since a shelter isn’t stable enough to allow the type of chemotherapy and surgery needed for the aggressive form of esophagus cancer he had.
And this was all just the latest twist in a long string of bad luck.
Arthritis and a damaged back ended his 35-year painting career in 2013. With no paycheck, he wound up living in his car for a couple of years. Federal disability payments allowed him to ditch the car around 2016 and claw his way back to stability with a room in a shared house. Then came that life-changing diagnosis of cancer in September 2018.
“The landlord told me, ‘If I’d known you had cancer, I would have never rented to you,’ ” Hendrix said. “My heart sank to my feet. I figured, OK, I’ll be homeless again.
“But you know,” he added quietly, “there’s always a solution. You just have to wait until it evolves itself.”
And evolve it did, with the help of dedicated social workers and the Chronicle Season of Sharing Fund. The fund works year-round to prevent homelessness and hunger in the nine-county Bay Area. All donations go directly to help people in need, with administrative costs covered by The Chronicle and the Walter and Evelyn Haas Jr. Fund.
Hendrix did find a home. And he beat back that cancer. But the sobering reality is that Hendrix’s predicament isn’t that uncommon.
Hendrix is a textbook case of a growing phenomenon of hardworking, blue-collar Americans running into financial trouble when they hit middle age and their physical jobs wear them out. In his case, it was compounded by a landlord evidently breaking Fair Housing Act laws that prevent eviction of people with disabilities.
“Getting evicted for having cancer? It was shocking after everything Jack had already been through,” said his sister, Patty Scanlon of American Canyon. “We were all beside ourselves with worry.”
A UCSF study this year showed that 44 percent of homeless people over the age of 50 hit the streets for the first time after their 50th birthdays — like Hendrix did for those two years living in his car. The main reason is they live paycheck to paycheck, and with an inadequate federal safety net, they have little to fall back on if they lose their jobs and aren’t old enough to qualify for Social Security.
Which is what happened to Hendrix.
Some older homeless people can move in with family. But the study found that, as with Hendrix, it’s difficult to add people to a small household, and most older people who’ve been homeless are steeped in a stubbornly independent spirit. They don’t want to be an imposition.
“Jack didn’t even ask if he could stay with any of us,” said Scanlon, referring to herself and their two other sisters. “He’s always taken care of himself. We knew that’s how he would be. He’d go to a shelter first.”
Hendrix was built of tough stuff from the beginning.
There were five siblings in the family, and his dad, career Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Myron Hendrix, and mom raised the brood to be disciplined and tenacious.
“My dad said, ‘Always be the best you can be, and give 120 percent,’ ” Hendrix said. Growing up in Napa, that didn’t so much pertain to book learning as it did to living an outdoor life to the fullest.
Childhood had a lot of duck and pheasant hunting, fishing for crab, diving for abalone, racing around on motorcycles — “just getting out there and doing all the fun stuff,” he said. After high school his stepbrother, Bill Smith — a Marine, 10 years older — asked him, “What are you going to do with your life?”
“I said I didn’t know, and Bill said, ‘Let’s get you a trade,’” Hendrix said. “He was a painter — houses, buildings, everything — and a damn good one, so that’s what I did. And I had a great career of it, plus a lot of construction work along the way. I became a jack of all trades and a master of one: painting.
“I loved it. You’d tell me to paint 10 feet, I’d go 15.”
That was all well and good until time and decay caught up to his body. Never married, Hendrix handled that on his own, filing for disability payments and finding housing he could afford, with a few hundred dollars left over at the end of the month.
Then came the cancer.
“If you want to get a real laugh, tell God your plans for today,” Hendrix said, shaking his head. “He’s usually got different plans.”
Once he was sick, the prospect of going to the homeless shelter in his area, where clients must leave during the day, would have made things even worse. Without a 24/7, stable address, it would be impossible to arrange surgery to remove the cancerous part of his esophagus and do followup chemotherapy, said Jeanne Cervone, Hendrix’s social worker at Queen of the Valley Medical Center, where he went for his cancer treatment.
“It was a very bad situation,” said Cervone. “The landlord refused to allow him to hire an in-home support services aide and told him he was evicted. But it was critical he have that surgery. It was life or death. And to have surgery, he needed a stable place to live — not a shelter.”
So while Hendrix fought his eviction notice with the help of his sisters and local housing advocates, Cervone scoured the county for a new place to live. She knew that at any moment, even if the eviction was proven later to be illegal, her client could wind up in the street.
She scored the apartment at the Vintage At Napa complex — but still had one more problem. Hendrix didn’t have any money for the required first and last month’s payment. That’s when Season of Sharing, which provides one-time funds to people in need, stepped in and paid the tab.
In May, Hendrix moved in.
Today, Hendrix lives in a federally subsidized senior citizen housing complex in his hometown of Napa. The building is newly refurbished, he has his own one-bedroom apartment for the first time since he was a painter — and perhaps best of all, he has plenty of room for his feisty pug dog, Gizmo, to romp and play.
“I’ve got a new lease on life,” Hendrix said the other day as he sat on his plush couch in his tidy apartment. Gizmo clattered up to him with his favorite toy, a velvet bone, and Hendrix chuckled.
He tossed the bone, and as the dog chased it across the apartment Hendrix leaned back on the couch with his hands laced behind his head to watch the pooch. No hurry. Only fun.
“Things looked really bad there for awhile,” he said. “But I kept treading water until I could reach shore. And now” — he waved an arm to take in the living room with its wide-screen TV, and the fully stocked kitchen — “I’ve got all this.
“It’s been a helluva journey.”
Soon after he landed his apartment, Hendrix started chemotherapy. Doctors cut out that bad part of his esophagus in July, and with the help of continuing chemo and radiation treatment, he has been declared cancer-free. Hendrix expects to be done with the post-op followup by the New Year — and then it’s on to the next phase of his newly re-lit life.
“I might get a little job of some kind to stay busy, but really what I think I’m going to do is go fishing,” he said, a wistful looking coming to his eyes. “Yeah, I’m going to go catch some sturgeon in the delta, just like the old days.
“Look — I’ve got my health back. I’ve got a great place to live. I’ve got Gizmo. The sky’s the limit!”
Help your Bay Area neighbors today by donating to the Chronicle Season of Sharing Fund: https://seasonofsharing.org/donate-now/. All administrative expenses are covered by the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund and the San Francisco Chronicle so 100% of your tax-deductible donation helps Bay Area residents in need.