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Homeless and cancer-ridden, woman fights to stay alive in Chester County

Part of a little-known population of nomadic homeless people in Chester County, Maureen and Don Wall once owned a house where they raised two children. Now, they stay in hospitals, or cheap hotels, or on friends’ couches. “God is still providing for us,” she says.

Maureen Wall is being treated for metastatic breast cancer at Chester County Hospital in West Chester. She believes God is putting her through a series of trials.
Maureen Wall is being treated for metastatic breast cancer at Chester County Hospital in West Chester. She believes God is putting her through a series of trials.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

The breast cancer has spread, colonizing Maureen Wall’s body with soulless precision.

It’s bred havoc and poverty in the lives of Wall, 60, and her husband, Don, 59.

The pair are homeless. Currently, she sleeps in a bed at Chester County Hospital, while Don sleeps in the chair next to her. Medicaid covers hospital costs. They survive on $350 a month in food stamps, and whatever cash and gas money for Don’s father’s old car, a 2005 Nissan Altima, that friends, Chester County churches, and charitable strangers can give.

Now part of a little-known population of nomadic homeless people in Chester County, the Walls once owned a house where they raised two children. Now, they stay in hospitals, cheap hotels, or friends’ couches in various towns.

While Maureen has suffered through three years of chemotherapy, radiation, and other treatments, Don — who once earned $53,000 a year selling parts for BMWs — has been laid off twice, and now devotes his time to caring for his wife and looking for a part-time job.

The couple have applied for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for Maureen, but have been denied by the federal government three times. SSI, which amounts to about $770 a month, is given to disabled and destitute people who can’t work. Despite a mythology that has grown around the program — that payments are easily obtained by cheating the system — approximately two-thirds of applicants are turned down, federal figures show.

Devout Christians, the Walls believe God is placing obstacles in front of them in some kind of evolving trial, and they pray to come out of this whole and alive.

“God is still providing for us,” Maureen said.

Doctors have said Maureen might live a year or less, as cancer has ravaged one breast and lodged in the other. The disease has further metastasized to her lungs and her liver.

“This is a sad case, a sad case,” said Jan Leaf, executive director of the Lord’s Pantry of Downingtown food bank, which offers the Walls food, and has bought them a hot plate so Maureen can eat vegetables. "To see people who worked all their lives, just to end up in this situation ... .

“They just look you in the eyes, very nice people who’ve touched the hearts of our volunteers. She is so frail, it’s a shame. Their story follows you home at night. You can’t stop thinking about them.”

Middle-class and making it

Married for 30 years, the Walls were middle-class and making it. After high school in Damascus, Md., Don attended trade school for automotive repair. Maureen, who had been born in Washington, earned a two-year degree in business administration at Montgomery College in Rockville, Md.

Between 1993 and 2004, they lived in Frederick, Md., where Maureen quit her $36,000-a-year administrative job at the National Institutes of Health because, she said, “I wanted to spend my time raising my son and daughter.” Don’s job made it all seem possible.

The family moved to Hagerstown, Md., in 2004, where they took on a $1,700-a-month mortgage. But soon afterward, Don got laid off, and scrambled to work at a series of part-time jobs.

“Still,” Don said, “I could never recover from the layoff. Never recover.”

They lost the house in 2010, while son Joseph, now 28, was in college and daughter Karen, now 26, was in high school. By 2016, Maureen had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and began treatment.

The family moved to Chambersburg, Pa., in 2018. Joseph had found work as a counselor there and helped keep the family afloat. But his job situation deteriorated, and he left for Virginia. He still tried to pay his parents’ rent as Don worked part time, but it wasn’t enough, and Don and Maureen were evicted this past May.

By then, Maureen had developed colitis and was hospitalized at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center for two weeks after becoming homeless.

“You have to fight colitis so you can continue to fight the cancer,” Maureen said. Don slept at the hospital in a chair next to his wife.

Hotel rooms and hospitals

Since spring, the couple have tried various treatments, natural and traditional, at a number of medical institutions around Philadelphia. Chester County churches have paid for hotel rooms when the Walls are not sleeping in hospitals. Organizations that house people undergoing medical care have put them up for short periods.

Family members have helped when they can. Joseph, who lives in a small apartment in Virginia, still pays for his parents’ cell phone. Don said Karen can’t contribute as much because she’s had troubles of her own, and lives with her husband and three children at her in-laws’ house in West Virginia.

In the midst of Maureen’s difficulties, her older sister gave them $2,000, and her twin sister and her husband have helped out, too. Don’s relatives also have given what they can, his father, now deceased, most of all. The only time Maureen teared up in a two-hour conversation was when she described the endless generosity of Donald Sr., who paid to put Joseph and Karen through private Christian school, among many other things. “He was wonderful,” Maureen said. “We owed him a lot.”

Overall, it’s been a wearying, deflating battle that has sapped, but not soured, the pair.

“It’s a challenging life,” said Maureen as she sat in a wheelchair off the lobby of the hospital, a tube in her nose supplying oxygen. “But we were blessed for a long time before this with food and a roof. I’m not bitter. I’m still happy.”

In 2017, the Walls first applied for SSI. A lawyer suggested to people close to the family that they might not have applied and appealed correctly.

“Less than 40% of people get it in on the first try,” said Richard Weishaupt, a lawyer for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, which serves low-income people.

“A safety net program of last resort, you’re more likely to be rejected than to get it,” said Susan Parish, dean of the College of Health Professions at Virginia Commonwealth University and an SSI expert. “The standards are so strict.”

The Walls are not alone in their misery. “We’ve seen similar homelessness patterns in Chester County, though not everyone is connected to illness,” said Susan Minarchi, executive director of Family Promise of Southern Chester County, which helps people who don’t have places to live.

“Thankfully, we have generous churches in our area who do a lot to help people.”

Homelessness is counted in two ways in Chester County. One method looks at children, with an estimate of about 1,100 youngsters up to grade 12 living homeless there, which may include kids sleeping on the couches of friends and family. By the other method, around 515 people are living on Chester County streets and in shelters.

Having contacted a lawyer, the Walls hope their SSI case can move forward soon. Meanwhile, they cling to hope and each other.

“Will I make it?” Maureen asked. "I don’t know. But my husband is pulling along and sticking with me. And I don’t always show my best side when I’m sick.

“I have lost a lot of my life. But God has done so much for us. How can you get mad?”