Reluctant honorees: Claremont couple saluted for work with unhoused man

Carmen Flores, left, and Tatiana Guerrero are this year’s honored group for the City of Claremont’s Fourth of July parade. The city honored the couple “for their personal care and assistance with providing transportation and housing to an unhoused member of our community,” Cash Whiteley. Photo/courtesy of Carmen Flores

by Mick Rhodes | editor@claremont-courier.com

When Carmen Flores and Tatiana Guerrero learned the City of Claremont aimed to name the couple its 2023 honored group and wanted them to be part of next week’s Fourth of July parade, their first reaction was puzzlement.

“We were surprised,” Flores said. “I wasn’t quite sure why. I thought maybe we had done something else. I didn’t connect it to Cash.”

That would be Cash Whiteley, a 60-year-old local unhoused man Flores and Guerrero befriended four years ago.

“It’s a little embarrassing I think for us,” Flores said. “We’re pretty private. I don’t know if embarrassing is the right word … just the attention. For us it’s not necessary; it’s not why we did it.”

“It” refers to the selfless help they and a group of other kind-hearted Claremonters lent Whiteley earlier this year that led not only to his remarkable continuing recovery from a rare cancer, but to his renewed sense of well-being and a surprising appearance on national television.

The road to next Tuesday’s parade began on a cold, rainy Thanksgiving Day in 2019. The couple were returning from a holiday celebration when they spotted him huddled under an awning in the Village.

“He just looked really cold, and we had food in the car and decided to pull over and give him a Thanksgiving meal,” Flores said. “He was soaked. He was cold. So then we put him up in a hotel for a few days.”

Thus began a relationship that would blossom in unimaginable ways.

Over the next three years the couple would see Whiteley around town from time to time — with his distinctive razor thin frame, hat, and white beard — and offer help.

Things took a somber turn in January 2023, when on another chilly, rainy evening the couple decided to check up on Whiteley and got in their car to search. They found him asleep on a  concrete landing in front of a local church.

“Obviously his health had declined,” Flores said. Indeed: an open wound on his jawline — later to be diagnosed as a mercifully slow-growing squamous cell carcinoma — had grown to alarming proportions. The next morning the couple returned to the church.

“We just gave him an invitation to come home with us,” Flores said. “It was no longer like, ‘Hey, hi, how are you doing? Here’s a hot meal.’ He clearly needed a little more than that.”

Whitely is a proud man. But after 20 years on the street, and with his face erupting in an alarmingly aggressive, undiagnosed mystery, he realized the time had come to accept help.

“I was down for the count, and I pretty well knew it,” Whiteley said this week. “So I wasn’t in a position to turn ‘em down.”

After a meal and a hot shower, Whiteley laid down on a guest room bed in the couple’s Claremont home and slept hard.

It turned out to be the key first step in what has become Whiteley’s continuing recovery. Since then, the couple’s generosity and practical problem-solving skills have made an immeasurable difference in his life.

“They took the initiative, and they didn’t have to do that,” Whiteley said.

Since that pivotal morning in front of that Claremont church, Whiteley has been on an upward trajectory. Before long he was at City of Hope in Duarte, being attended to by some of the top cancer specialists in the country. He had a diagnosis, a treatment plan, and within days underwent his first course of immunotherapy.

The results were astonishing. His wound began to heal. And with the newfound hope, came something else that had been missing for longer than Whiteley could remember.

“His tone has softened. His face has softened. His vocabulary has changed,” Flores said. “Each time we see him he’s obviously better, emotionally, physically; he’s just in a better place. That’s nice to see.”

Shortly after Whiteley began treatment at City of Hope Flores came across a social media post of a story by CBS Mornings Lead National Correspondent David Begnaud about a woman who had offered shelter to an unhoused man. She left a comment that she appreciated the story and was coincidentally doing the same thing at the moment. Intrigued, Begnaud messaged her. Days later, a CBS television crew was in Flores’ and Guerrero’s Claremont living room. The segment aired February 24.

Now some five months later, after Whiteley’s day in the national spotlight, it’s Flores’ and Guerrero’s turn, albeit on the modest stage of Claremont’s Fourth of July parade.

“We didn’t foresee David coming to the house with a news crew or being recognized by the city either,” Flores said.

Other locals have certainly aided Whiteley through the years, including The Rev. Jessie Smith, from St. Ambrose Episcopal Church in Claremont, who has since 2019 offered him shelter, food, and a warm shower at the Claremont church. Earlier this year an anonymous donor at St. Ambrose pledged $4,000 for Whiteley to purchase a new car, a red 2007 PT Cruiser. Another is Dr. Shanmuga Subbiah at City of Hope West Covina. A Claremont man who wishes to remain anonymous helped with getting medical treatment early on, then again later with a safe, private place for Whiteley to park his car and sleep. Several others have also played roles in Whiteley’s recovery.

It’s been a year of hard work for all involved. Thankfully, the outcomes have thus far been good all around.

Whiteley was asked how he felt about his friends’ hometown Fourth of July honor.

“I thought it was well deserved because they actually stepped up to the plate when it seemed like nobody else wanted to,” Whiteley said. “They were actually … helpful in ways that most people wouldn’t.”

The trio remains in regular contact. Lunches and phone calls are joyous now, no longer burdened by hopelessness.

“It’s more focused on how people have come together around him and how he’s doing better,” Flores said. “He’s a different human being in many ways.”

Claremont’s Fourth of July parade kicks off at 10 a.m. at Memorial Park. More info is at ci.claremont.ca.us.

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