More About Smokie McGhee
Last month we ran an obituary for long-time homeless woman Irene “Smokie” McGhee. She had been homeless since her husband died in 2004, and become a fixture in my neighborhood for some years before she gained worldwide notice as the recipient of Elvis Summers’ first tiny house. She parked the little structure on wheels on my street, Van Buren Place, a few blocks south of where I live. Sometime late in 2015, in response to complaints from neighbors, police asked Smokie to move a block to the east, to Budlong Avenue near Jefferson Blvd. She cried bitterly before she went. “Not Budlong,” she moaned. “It’s all drug dealers there.”
It was only one block to the east, but it is a different world. Van Buren is a quiet street of neat four-plexes and old houses. Budlong at Jefferson is anchored by Freeport-McMoRan’s Jefferson Oil Drill Site. A wide grassy margin between the sidewalk and the wall surrounding the pumping facility is home to a daily swap meet, a hangout for gang members and drug dealers mixing with the marginal vendors Smokie lasted there only a few months. Early in 2016 she disappeared. The word on the street was that she had fled drug dealers to whom she owed money.
The information I had about her after that came from others who knew her. I was told that she was living under a bridge near Skid Row, and when she died, on November 8, it is was from a heroin overdose. Some of this information was wrong.
Elvis Summers, who knew Smokie better than I did, called me December 8. He had read my obituary and wanted to tell me the real story.
She did not die of a drug overdose. She had been a heroin addict, but Elvis helped her get off drugs while she had her tiny house parked on Van Buren Place. She had been off drugs for a while when she was forced to move to Budlong. Elvis said she cried because she knew she would be overwhelmed by the temptation ever present in her new location. And that is what happened. She was drawn back into the habit.
She did flee from an unpaid heroin bill. She left her little house behind. She didn’t go to Skid Row but to the 42nd Street bridge over the Harbor Freeway. I go there once a month to photo the long row of homeless tents, but most of the homeless stay inside and I never saw her.
On the bridge her health began to fail. Elvis helped reconnect her with a sister in Lancaster, where she spent some time. Her kidneys were shutting down. Returning to Los Angeles, she went to see Elvis. He got her admitted to a shelter, but it had a 14-day limit. When her time was up they dumped her on Skid Row. By that time, she was undergoing dialysis somewhere. Soon after, she collapsed and was taken to California Hospital. There she had a stroke and a heart attack. She was in a coma for about two weeks before she died. She was 61 years old.