“I know you told me you lived down the street, but I mean where exactly do you sleep?”
That’s the question Elvis Summers asked his new friend Smokie. Summers and Irene “Smokie” McGhee had struck up a casual friendship as McGhee, 60, stopped by his apartment most mornings to collect recyclables and chat.
“I figured she at the very least had a cardboard box, a tarp, or something, but she had none of that,” Summers, 37 tells PEOPLE. “She was like, ‘Well, I don’t have anything I just sleep next to the building.’ ”
“I asked, ‘Is there an awning or anything?’ ” he continues. “She was like, ‘There’s a chair.’ ”
“That got me. I just jumped in the car and went to Home Depot. I was like, ‘Screw it.’ I mean I skipped on buying a little bit of food – a lot of bit of food – skipped on a couple of bills and just made it happen.”
The Seattle native then spent about five days and $500 dollars building a 3½ by 8-foot mobile house to give Smokie a safe space to sleep.
“I felt so good,” Smokie told CBS Los Angeles of her first time in her new home. “I was so relaxed. I think I must’ve slept half of the day.
“There are people emailing me all over the world saying they want to help,” says Summers. “I probably have one of the most vivid and large imaginations of anybody and yet I couldn’t foresee this blowing up so fast and so far.”
Summers started a GoFundMe page to “build tiny houses for homeless women, men, children, U.S. veterans and families who are homeless.” As of Thursday night, the page has raised more than $19,000.
In addition to raising funds to build more houses, Summers hopes that this story will inspire others to reevaluate the assumptions they make about the homeless.
“Since [Smokie] looks weathered and her teeth are pretty much gone,” Summers says people assume she’s an addict. “And it’s absolutely not true.”
The do-gooder says he didn’t know how Smokie became homeless until she was asked about it on a newscast.
“I still am choking up over it,” he tells PEOPLE. “She was married for a long time and had a house and her husband died. And she lost her husband and then she lost her house and that’s how she ended up on the street.”
“And she does have a son but one he’s got six kids of his own. Her son tries to help her but she says, ‘I’m the mother and that’s my son. He shouldn’t be burdened having me on the couch when I should be the one taking care of him.’ ”
Now that she has a roof over her head, Smokie told ABC she’d like to start looking for a job.
Meanwhile, Summers has taken on a new job of his own: working with the LAPD to find a government-owned lot where more tiny houses could be built for the city’s homeless.