Maria Dolores Diaz was an active organizer and educator in the Chicano movement who was "instrumental in mobilizing and increasing awareness around issues related to women of color--particularly lesbians of color--during the 1960s and 1970s," according to the featured "resident story" on the Gay & Lesbian Elder Housing website. "Maria currently holds a PhD in Public Administration from the University of Southern California and an Acupuncture License from SMRA."
In fact, Diaz died recently, which raised a number of questions about the circumstances of her death and how the nonprofit Gay & Lesbian Elder Housing operates the almost four-year-old LGBT-centric 104-unit affordable housing facility at Triangle Square in Hollywood.
After the Los Angeles County coroner placed a blue seal on her door early on Sunday, Jan. 16, rumors started swirling that Diaz may have committed suicide or been murdered. A community meeting was called on Jan. 18 to talk about what happened.
Sheila Moore, GLEH's Director of Programs and Community Outreach, led the meeting with GLEH Executive Director Mark Supper and the building manager standing nearby. Moore was sensitive to the concerns among the 40-45 residents who attended the meeting (which Frontiers subsequently learned was intended only for the community of residents). At the meeting, Moore tried to address the reaction to the "unexpected" death, noting that the coroner's blue seal did not indicate that this was a crime scene but rather secured the apartment for the person Diaz indicated would come for her belongings. Moore also noted that the coroner said Diaz died of "natural causes" and her death was not "pre-planned," that is, not a suicide.
In fact, the official report (which varies slightly from Moore's account) of that night indicates that the security guard was first alerted to a "foul odor" coming from Diaz's apartment by a friend of the tenant. Upon investigation, he reported a "strong bad odor coming from room number 317," Diaz's room. "From my experience, it smelled like a foul odor coming from a deceased person," the report reads.
Unable to reach the apartment manager by phone, the security guard called the LAPD Hollywood Division, which
dispatched two officers, accompanied by someone from the L.A. Fire Department. LAPD Officer Martinez confirmed that the odor was "the smell of a decomposing body" and that due to the "severe odor," they had the legal right to enter the apartment without the manager's permission.
Apparently the security guard tried all his keys but was unable to open the front door, which was then pried open. Diaz was found "lying face down deceased on the bedroom floor." The LAPD notified the coroner that the body was discovered at 2:45 a.m.; the coroner determined that she died of "natural causes" and sealed the apartment.
Larry Dietz, a watch commander at the coroner's office, told Frontiers that Diaz died as a result of heart disease and "that rules out suicide." Asked if he could determine the time of death, given conflicting stories about the "strong odor" of the decomposing body, Dietz said, "this is not like TV." He said the time of death is determined based on the death process or when the body is discovered. It is now a closed case, and the official time of death is Sunday, Jan. 16 at 2:45 a.m.
Some residents and others impacted by Diaz's death wonder why it took so long to discover her body. During the community meeting, it was revealed that there are no mechanisms or systems (such as a "panic button" or buddy system) in place to check on residents. Could a slip-and-fall turn into something more dire but preventable? One resident indicated he's now looking into getting a medical alert button through Medicare.
There are conflicting stories about when Maria Dolores Diaz was last seen.
"[We] have eye accounts of seeing Ms. Dolores on Thursday morning [Jan 13] by numerous individuals of Triangle Square, so we would speculate that anytime after Thursday morning she could have passed away," Supper said in a statement to Frontiers. "Triangle Square takes great pride in our unique model of care that has been established to support and encourage seniors to live independently while making onsite social services, case management, nutrition programs, housing retention, aging in place, health and wellness programs available to everyone. Triangle Square is an independent living facility and not a medical facility, assisted living or skilled nursing facility. Programs are all voluntary and are in place to ensure the safety and well-being of all residents based on each individual person's choosing."
Additionally, Supper noted, "Triangle Square provides onsite security and patrols the halls every night on a regular basis (every day and nightly). In addition we have 24-hour video surveillance throughout the building at all exits/entrances of the building." It was building security who called 911, he noted.
But Margo Strik, a resident who was featured in the documentary A Place to Live--The GLEH Triangle Square Story, told Frontiers she smelled an odor on Friday afternoon and told a neighbor she "knew it wasn't a cooking odor." She thought it came from the stairwell. On Saturday night, she brought it up to Stephanie Houfek, who alerted the security guard.
Houfek, a former risk management investigator for Disney and other companies, was a volunteer security guard at GLEH before becoming building manager for a few years. She still maintains friendships with some of the residents and helps out when she can. Houfek told Frontiers that GLEH is often not aware of what happens in the building. For example, one resident died at a "rehab home" but GLEH continued to place notices, including a "pay or quit" notice, on his door until another resident told management he had died.
Houfek also pointed out that other "in-house" deaths were found relatively quickly with no blue seals placed on their doors. Blue seals, she said, indicate bio-hazards as well as personal property. Houfek called the coroner's office and was told that "the death odor, depending on circumstances, would take a minimum of several days--up to 10 days" to penetrate the fire-sealed door.
Strik suggests that GLEH is using the term "independent living" to hide incompetence. Strik started her LGBT activism in the late '70s, brought out by Anita Bryant and the No on 6 Campaign. She joined the ACLU's Lesbian & Gay Rights Chapter and Stonewall Democratic Club before finding her niche with the Southern California Women for Understanding, which became one of the nation's largest lesbian organizations. She was board chair from 1985-89 and edited the SCWU newsletter for almost a decade. She is not easily intimidated but she says others are, terrified of being evicted and becoming homeless unless they agree and comply with GLEH and the management company--and that means not speaking out about what's wrong at Triangle Square. She has gone from joy over finding a place to live to disillusionment.
"When the idea of Triangle Square started to become a possibility, I jumped on it as if this could become a dream come true. A dream of living among peers, being able to visit over a cup of coffee or go to lunch or catch a movie. In my mind's eye that dream was about seniors just like me and just like the friends my age I had. A safe and meaningful place to live out my life. There would be, after all, the support of social services on site, a management company which was familiar with low-income and senior housing, a community center with meaningful activities, we were told. My dream became a reality four days before my 70th birthday," Strik told Frontiers.
But the excitement she displayed in the documentary began to fade shortly after moving in, starting with the "mix" of residents from high-functioning to people who needed mental attention. Additionally, she said she had to secure a doctor's note for the management company--saying she was prone to falling and needed handicapped bars--before the management company would install them.
Supper said, "Triangle Square Apartments, from inception and development, was always planned to be an independent senior living property; not congregate care, assisted living, skilled nursing facility or a nursing home. As a result, Triangle Square Apartments were developed in accordance with federal, state and local regulations for independent living apartments. Residents who choose to live at Triangle Square Apartments do so of their own free will after visiting the community and their respective apartment. Management and owner policy is to always consider reasonable accommodations upon resident requests. Upon receipt and approval of reasonable accommodation requests, items such as handicapped bars and high seat toilets are provided and installed free of charge."
"As far as 'independent living' is concerned, why have on-site social services if we're supposed to be so independent?," Strik said. "Social services, incidentally, has never helped me obtain any benefit such as housing assistance (Section 8) or other financial, medical, transportation or social aid. I've done all of that on my own. I cannot call GLEH supportive," having failed to help her after she had major brain surgery and after her best friend died. Since then she has stopped participating in GLEH activities.
"I look at this facility as a regular apartment building and I love my apartment (and thanks to getting Section 8 now, it's affordable). It has some nice folks living here and I visit and chat with them on occasion. But community? I try to maintain a life outside these walls and practice my own brand of 'independent living' here," Strik said.
But Strik is annoyed because of how GLEH is being marketed. "GLEH appears to be quite good at pulling at heartstrings in order to get people to open their purse strings. But it's deceptive. In their own brand of psychobabble, they talk about caring for our residents in their time of need," Strik said. "But when residents are indeed in need, we're told that this is not an assisted living facility; it's an independent living facility. You're on your own, kids."
Strik used to cry every time she saw the documentary, "because there was a need, there was a dream," she said. "But I've stopped going to the screenings, because I'm afraid of being asked how I like living here. The film was very real at the time ... but now my image, my story is being used by GLEH as a fundraising tool. And I can't stand the thought of that. It's just plain dishonest."
As of Jan. 21, there has been no memorial announced for Maria Dolores Diaz.
This story is cross-posted from my story in Frontiers In LA.