Community Mourns Death of Homeless Friend; Collects Money for Shelter, Burial

View Steve Kline’s Videos of Gail’s Community Memorial Service

Of the 250 people gathered on Monday, August 20, to remember the homeless woman known as Gail, one of the mourners knew her better than anyone.

Memorial for Gail shines brightly.

Over the many years of Gail’s street life, J.B. Smith became more than one of the dozens of people who tried to help Gail. His account of their relationship is posted to a memorial filled with flowers, candles, cards and stuffed animals.

“Gail and I became really good friends,” he said, after a candle-lit observance in the Walgreen’s parking lot, just a few feet away from where Gail died on August 13.

Gail, 59, was stabbed to death as she sat on the sidewalk in front of the Walgreen’s store on the corner of West San Carlos Street and Meridian Avenue. A suspect, Marquis Reynolds, has been arrested and witness accounts say he had feared Gail was putting a voodoo hex on him.

Others at the memorial service talked about trying to offer her water, coffee, food, blankets or even a sleeping bag. She usually politely said “no thank you” but would accept $1 bills. The lucky ones got to see her smile and watch her blue eyes sparkle.

Smith’s experience was similar when he first noticed her on Lincoln Avenue on a hot June day .

Stacey Bordo collects money for Gail’s burial.

“Gail didn’t want anything to do with me,” he said to a small group that had gathered to hear stories about the woman who had become a familiar figure on West San Carlos Street.

But Smith didn’t give up. He visited her weekly and after about eight months, she began to talk to him.

“You can’t bring them into your world,” he said of homeless people who have spent years on the streets. “You need to be in theirs. I always stayed in her world.”

Mourners listen to spiritual songs.

Sometimes Smith, who goes by J.B. but was John to Gail, bought her clothes. He kept 30 pairs of men’s socks for her in his truck so he would always have a fresh supply. He bought her shoes and said she wore a men’s size 12.

He understood why she often declined help. “That was her protection, but not letting people in,” he said. “That was her safety.”

Lighting a candle for Gail.

At times Gail was chatty and told Smith about growing up in Brooklyn, where she enjoyed track and field in high school and loved to read. But she revealed little about why she hitched a ride to California years ago and why she didn’t want Smith to buy a plane ticket home for her or contact her family.

During the past six months, her health started deteriorating and Smith noticed the top of her new shoes was worn. That’s because she could not walk and had been crawling. He bought her a walker, which she had with her when she was killed. When she was healthy, she could cover 15 miles a day, he said. Toward the end, she was seen mainly in front of the Walgreen’s store.

“I’m going to adopt her,” her remembers saying when he first met Gail. As it turned out, “She adopted me. Once she asked you to be a part of her, you had a real good friend.”

The memorial was held at the Walgreen’s parking lot near the site of Gail’s slaying.

During the service, Rev. Bryan Franzen of the Westminster Church reminded the crowd of our obligation as a community and as a city to take care of people who call the streets of San Jose home.

“How can it be that a child of God has been killed,” he asked. “How can we be a better community? How can we not forget the forgotten?”

Stacey Bardo, a San Jose resident, is working with the Westminster Church to collect money for a burial if Gail’s family members are not contacted. The San Jose Police are trying to identify Gail and contact her family, but if they are unsuccessful, Bardo said she would claim Gail’s body and see to it that Gail is cremated. An online fundraising campaign has been launched to raise money for the Julian Street Inn, which provides services for mentally ill homeless people.

“I’ve been trying to help this woman for years, “ she said, “She never took my help. It kills me that she might be cremated and tossed out to sea like she didn’t matter.”

Bardo, who works at Valley Medical Center and sees firsthand the physical results of homelessness, said over the years she offered Gail water, coffee, a sleeping bag, clothes and a whole roasted chicken from Safeway. She declined.

But one day, Bardo said to her, “I pray for you every time I see you.”

“She smiled so big and her eyes sparkled. I handed her three $1 bills and she took them.”