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Juneau's most vulnerable woman remembered

Gloria Plummer remembered as military wife, mother figure to city's homeless

Posted: March 25, 2012 - 12:09am
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Charles Wheaton holds a rose that was placed on Gloria Plummer's mattress under Gold Creek Bridge on Egan Drive, Saturday. Wheaton and Plummer lived under the bridge together for five years. He found her body Tuesday.  Emily Russo Miller / Juneau Empire
Emily Russo Miller / Juneau Empire
Charles Wheaton holds a rose that was placed on Gloria Plummer's mattress under Gold Creek Bridge on Egan Drive, Saturday. Wheaton and Plummer lived under the bridge together for five years. He found her body Tuesday.

A few days before Gloria Ann Plummer’s body was found on a faded blue Lady Americana mattress in the concrete crawlspace under a Juneau bridge, kids threw stones at her camp.

“They were trying to break it down, so we chased them off,” her “adopted” nephew and friend Brent Sanders, 22, said at Plummer’s Friday memorial service at the Glory Hole. ”That was the last time I saw her.”

Sixty-one-year-old Plummer, one of Juneau’s most visibly homeless chronic inebriates, died Tuesday after living on the streets for more than a decade. She spent the past five years living under the Gold Creek bridge on Egan Drive near the Alaskan & Proud with her boyfriend from Kake, Milton, and Charles Wheaton, 56.

But Monday evening, she was alone. Wheaton, who gave the eulogy at Plummer’s memorial service, said he missed a call from her that night.

“She called me and asked where I was,” he said. “She was scared of going underneath the bridge by herself.”

The next day, he brought her red coat because the last time he saw her in front of the old Salvation Army store, she was in pain. Efforts to convince her to go to the hospital were fruitless.

But when he climbed down the rocks under the bridge, she was already gone.

“I didn’t think she’d go that quick,” he said quietly.

He called 911 and waited for help to come.

“The cops took pictures of my hands like I committed a crime,” he cried.

Of the estimated 500-plus homeless people in Juneau, Plummer was easily the most vulnerable of them all, given her age, physical and mental health issues and substance abuse problems, according to Glory Hole Executive Director Mariya S. Lovishchuk.

“I think the combination of all those things, and just looking at her, you could see that she was just not doing good,” Lovishchuk said.

Plummer died one week short of being ranked on an official “vulnerability index,” which is a tool to measure who is most at risk for dying on the streets. Volunteers with the Juneau Homeless Coalition, and the coalition’s partners, are beginning to survey Juneau’s population of homeless chronic inebriates on Monday.

“It is really curious that she dies right before we do this, like right before,” Lovishchuk said.

Plummer used to sleep at the Glory Hole, but wasn’t allowed to after it began administering breath alcohol tests to enforce its new zero tolerance policy. Plus, Plummer, who was known to have a fierce temper and penchant for cussing people out, acted with hostility towards social service providers.

“When I first started working there, she would be drunk and we would have to call the cops. She’d throw chairs around, fight, yell, pee on a chair. We just couldn’t do it,” Lovishchuk said. “She needed her own space, something we couldn’t provide.”

There wasn’t any place for her to go since none of the supportive services in Juneau allow drinking or alcohol-related behavior, Lovishchuk said. The only option that would have been available is if Juneau had a “Housing First” facility which could provide low-cost or free housing for chronic alcoholics.

“If we had a Housing First facility, that would have been custom-made for her,” Lovishchuk said.

Out on the streets, Plummer found herself in and out of the court system after being arrested or cited by police about 50 times in the past 10 years. Most of those infractions, 30 of them, were for consuming alcohol in public or for having an open container of alcohol.

Family members tried to bring her home, but she wouldn’t have it, they said. She was too independent, too free and didn’t want to be a burden.

“We couldn’t change the person she wanted to be,” her sister Annie Brailey of Angoon said, blinking back tears at the memorial service. “She chose to be that person. We all choose who we’re going to be.”

Brailey remembers that life wasn’t this way for her sister.

Plummer, of the Was’hinede Kwa’an from the Taax’ Hit (Tiered House) in Kake, was the fifth of 11 children. She was a child of the Kaagwaantaan from the Eagle Nest House in Sitka, and she from the Eagle moiety Brown Bear Clan.

They grew up in Angoon, and their parents fished for king salmon and halibut on the trawler “Georgia Ann” in Angoon, where most of the family still resides.

One summer, she met Steve Plummer, an ex-Marine, in Sitka. When he re-enlisted, the two got married, and she became a military wife.

Together they travelled to Jacksonville, Fla., Maryland, Georgia, Chicago and San Diego.

But one day in 1996, Steve, then retired from the military, suddenly died while working on a garbage truck. The back lift of the truck was stuck, and Steve wrestled with it to get it loose. It crushed him on the way down, Wheaton said.

Plummer never recovered, and her family said she suffered a broken heart. Refusing help from her family, she eventually found herself on the streets.

In recent years, Plummer became a wise patron and mother figure to those in despair and the newly homeless.

“When I moved here nine months ago — this is the first time I’ve been homeless — she was there for me. Always giving me hugs and telling me to keep strong, that things can only get better,” said Terrianne McMillen, 24. “She was just so helpful and friendly. I’ve never dealt with this before.”

Sonya Crawford, a 31, a petite woman with blue flower pinned in her black hair, was the first to stand up and speak at Friday’s ceremony, where the flames of white tea candles placed on aluminum foil lit the rec room of the shelter.

“This woman helped me out when I was on the streets,” she said. “When I’ve had really rough times, and nobody seemed to bother to care — they would walk past me like I was nothing. She would say give me a hug, and comfort me and just tell me, ‘it’s OK. I love you and I care.’”

Wheaton, who has bipolar disorder and found himself homeless after he was divorced several years ago, said Plummer “taught me to be homeless,” and schooled him on knowing where to go to wash up and where to sleep at night.

“She will be missed deeply,” he murmured.

Eight members of Plummer’s family attended Friday’s service to mourn her death. Plummer was the first of the 11 siblings lost. But it was also there they, for the first time, met her other family, those at the Glory Hole. Each thanked the other.

“I wish I could blink my eyes and make something good for all of you,” Brailey told the 30-strong crowd. “If I was a rich woman, I would buy a house for you and take of you myself.”

When asked if Plummer’s death could have been prevented, director Lovishchuk said probably not. But it could have been a better situation if there was a place for Plummer to have lived, like at a Housing First type facility.

“It would have been a better situation. I do know that she would not have just passed out under a bridge. (Her family) would have known that she was taken care of. The guilt that they’re going to suffer through for the rest of their lives wouldn’t have been there,” she said. “It’s not appropriate to have people like Gloria die under bridges.”

Long after authorities arrived at Gold Creek bridge on Tuesday to take her body away, Wheaton said while he was gone from their campsites, which are a couple yards apart, someone trashed them. Plummer’s friends brought flowers, and placed them on her mattress.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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