Why did a homeless couple die in Greenfield?

  • City Council President Karen “Rudy” Renauld, left, stands next to Zach Wheeler as he addresses the crowd gathered on Greenfield Common in response to the deaths of two people who were found in a tent in the woods, one of whom was Wheeler’s father. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • George Ballentine, left, and Kerri Dionne Santos speak during a vigil held Wednesday on the Greenfield Common to honor the deaths of two of their friends who were found in a tent earlier this week in Greenfield.   Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • City Council President Karen “Rudy” Renauld, right, and Vice President Penny Ricketts address the crowd gathered on Greenfield Common in response to the deaths of two people who were found in a tent in the woods in Greenfield.  Staff Photo/Dan Little

Staff Writer
Published: 1/24/2019 3:48:38 PM

GREENFIELD — Zach Wheeler, 24, was in jail while some of the city’s homeless lived on the Greenfield Common this summer. He remembered a sense of anger about the whole thing.

The person who would visit and give him a sense of comfort while he was at the Franklin County House of Correction was his father, Clayton “Aaron” Wheeler, 51, who was homeless like those who camped on the common. “We made peace when I was locked up,” Zach Wheeler said Wednesday evening at a vigil for his father who died at a homeless encampment during the brutal cold earlier this week.

“He was the only one to come and see me,” said Zach Wheeler. His father was encouraging him to go back to college.

“We had bright plans for the future,” Zach Wheeler said about his father, who was his best friend, as he choked back his emotions. Tears were held back from his face on the cool day that felt balmy with the temperatures hovering around freezing after a few days in single digits.

Standing next to Wheeler was City Council President Karen “Rudy” Renaud, who helped to organize this vigil on the Common. Standing in front of the man dressed in a camouflage-jacket and with a freshly groomed beard were about 50 people who showed up, including city councilors and several social workers, some holding candles and many with armfuls of coats, blankets and gloves.

“He was the best father. He was always there. He was always there no matter what,” Zach Wheeler said. He paused. “It’s a shame my father has to be used as an example for this.”

Wheeler’s father died Monday. He was found dead in a tent in the unkept wooded area behind the McDonald’s on the Mohawk Trail, with the woman whom the younger Wheeler and friends knew as “Kathy.” To his son, the elder Wheeler always talked about a future with “Kathy.”

For members of the community close to the homeless in Greenfield, the two deaths triggered myriad emotions, all of which were on display Wednesday on the same Common where some of them had lived this past summer.

“I’m so much ashamed and angry at myself,” City Council Vice President Penny Ricketts said in tears. “We should have never let it get to this point.”

Ricketts, with her fellow councilors, agreed to ban camping on the Common at the end of the summer, and this week Ricketts called it an embarrassing moment for her.

“We knew as soon as they were out of the sight, people would forget about it,” Ricketts said about the homelessness issue.

Social workers and employees of the city had worked to place the homeless campers evicted from the Common in relatively stable situations after the city evicted them – with mixed success.

“All I can do today is to look at myself in the mirror and ask what took so long,” Ricketts said.

While the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office released ClaytonWheeler’s name, it declined to provide further information about cause of death, citing the need for toxicology reports. A preliminary autopsy did not show signs of trauma or foul play. They were waiting to notify the next of kin for “Kathy” before providing additional information.

“Kathy” may be best known in Greenfield as a woman who could be seen panhandling for money near the Big Y Plaza.

She was also a longtime employee of KFC on the Trail, her coworker Kerri Dionne Santos said. Santos said “Kathy” and Clayton Wheeler were “really sweet, kind hearted people that struggled with life.”

“There’s no sense in people dying in the cold,” Santos said at the vigil. “We’re a little, tiny, small town. We’d love to reach out to our community to help.”

A close friend of Clayton Wheeler was George Ballentine, who works at the Recovery Learning Community in Greenfield and assists 17 homeless individuals on the daily basis.

“Simple fact in my opinion is they were written off because they’re homeless,” Ballentine said. “And that’s not right. Because there’s not enough funding? When did it become OK to set a value on a person’s life?”

While “Kathy” is not known in town to have been chronically homeless, Clayton Wheeler was known to be so. Both people were well known to ServiceNet, the social agency that works with the homeless.

“Kathy” was known to be living in a single-room occupancy home in Greenfield, where people are not allowed to have partners stay over.

Clayton Wheeler was contacted by ServiceNet social workers and community members at least once on Friday, before the deep freeze, ServiceNet said Wednesday. Wheeler declined going into the 60 Wells St. overnight shelter that is already at full capacity but accepting additional people on an emergency basis.

Instead, Clayton Wheeler and “Kathy” were found together, dead in a tent behind McDonald’s off the Trail on a day when the wind chill factor dropped into the negative teens.

“These were really sweet people that didn’t deserve to die,” Santos said. “It’s senseless they had to lose their lives for us to pay attention.”

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