Deceased People Experiencing Homelessness


The coroner can usually identify the bodies, but most of the time their families don’t collect the remains. So once a year, in autumn, the county… buries them in a single grave at Evergreen…. The cemetery keeps people’s remains for four years, he said, in case anyone wants to claim them, although few do.

Daniel Costello wrote this six years ago, about Los Angeles, where there is a 30-day window during which a body can be claimed before cremation. Then, the ashes are separately kept for a while, just in case. Costello viewed the storage room in which 1,600 small maroon boxes were shelved. In each box, identified with a name tag if applicable, someone’s ashes were stored. Once the four-year wait was over, each pile of ashes would be decanted into a mass grave, the name tag discarded, and the box thriftily reused.

Last year, Los Angeles laid 1,639 people to rest in just this way. Supervisor Don Knabe told a reporter:

These are individuals that, for one reason or another, have no one but the county to provide them with a respectful and dignified burial. Some are homeless. Many are poor. Some have no families to grieve for them. Regardless of what their status in life was, each one of their lives mattered.

Some feel that, having ignored homeless people in life, the authorities should at least provide some kind of marker at each mass grave listing the names, rather than just the year. More could and maybe should be done to denote the resting place of so many unclaimed humans.

To pick a random American city, last month Mike Owen reported for the Ledger-Enquirer of Columbus, GA, on proposals that would cost the city an estimated additional $10,000 per year over what it already pays for indigent burials. The director of public services, Pat Biegler, put forward two ideas, one of them aimed at squeezing more use from the city’s Porterdale Cemetery.

Only about a thousand more burial plots are available, and with an average of 81 poor and forgotten people laid to rest there every year, at this rate, the cemetery will be full in 12 years. What Biegler suggests is to start employing the practice of cremation, which is the norm in many other places. Because of the religious implications, permission for cremation has to be given by a family member, and looking for them can be a long and complicated process. But part of the problem is, of course, that many people who become “indigent remains” do not have any locatable relatives.

However, even if only a portion of the total could be cremated, the plan would be to bury three sets of ashes in each plot, thus maximizing the use of space. (As we have seen, Los Angeles manages to fit more than a thousand into each plot.) But… Before the remains are buried, the processing of the body must be considered. For a straight burial, the casket costs $225 and the funeral home gets an additional $125 to cover its overhead. Cremation, at $600, costs nearly twice as much, though that may change if the city goes along with Biegler’s request to raise a standard burial payment from $350 to $400.

This story’s reader comments included an expression of incredulity that cremation costs more than burial, and an objection to burying three sets of cremains in a single burial plot, and the suggestion (maybe facetious and maybe not) that it would be more cost-effective to bury bodies vertically. The subject also unleashed ugly contentiousness. No matter what plan the authorities settle on, a goodly number of people will be riled up about it.

King County, WA, encompasses Seattle and about two million residents, and is nowhere near being one of America’s wealthiest counties. As of the 2010 census, median income for a family was $87,010, and about 10% of the residents qualified as below the poverty line. Carol Smith presciently wrote that an “invisible indicator” of a failing economy is the annually increasing number of unclaimed bodies housed in the morgue.

Smith interviewed Joe Frisino, chief investigator for the Medical Examiner’s office, whose job is to locate the relatives if possible and determine their wishes. Frisino often relies on Mary Larson, a nurse at the Pioneer Clinic, to help with identification. She also helps organize the annual group services, which sometimes memorialize as many as 200 unclaimed people. The nurse, an easel painter who often portrays her homeless friends in works of art, is quoted as saying:

We meet wonderful, very, very interesting people.

To qualify for indigent burial in Travis County, TX, a person has to either be unidentified, or possess under $2,000 in assets and no insurance. These days, that includes a lot of people, especially among the homeless. In Austin, Andrea Ball reported earlier this month on the inauguration of a second indigent cemetery:

For decades, Travis County has been arranging and paying for burials of low-income people. Travis County Health and Human Services and Veterans Services Department pays funeral homes about $850 per burial… The county provides the burial spot and arranges a small service. They also have staffers who work with surviving relatives.

Business and multimedia journalism student Michelle Chu notes that as an alternative to buying the 97-acre parcel of land for the new cemetery, the county considered privatizing indigent burial by contracting with funeral homes. She says:

Privatization would have increased the cost from $850 to about $4,500 per burial.

That would be an astonishingly exponential increase. Even more astonishing is to hear such an admission in a state where privatization is generally considered to be a good thing.

Ball tells us that in Travis County, cremation has not been the policy up until now, not even when requested by the decedent’s family, although that may change. Apparently, in other parts of Texas, a cremation can be had for as little as $200. In 2011, Travis County was responsible for 145 interments, at a total cost of $130,000. If the cremation alternative is adopted, it would have to be authorized by the next of kin, and not even considered in the case of an unidentified person.

In her piece, Ball quoted Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless, who sees the proposal as meeting changing needs while retaining sensitivity and respect for the deceased and their families.


Source: “Homeless in Life, Nameless in Death,” LA Times, 06/25/06
Source: “L.A. County to bury homeless, poor unclaimed by family members,” LA Times, 12/06/11
Source: “City considering cremation of indigent remains to save cemetery space,” Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, 07/31/12
Source: “Indigent Remains,” KUOW.org, 12/23/09
Source: “New cemetery for Travis’ indigent, and perhaps a new option: cremation,” Statesman.com, 08/08/12
Source: “A New (Final) Home for Indigent Residents,” Travis County in Transition, 2012
Image by Loco Steve (Steve Wilson).


Economic Inequality and Homelessness

Urban Blight #3By now, everyone has heard of TED, the nonprofit foundation whose mission is to spread ideas. Originally, its speakers and audience were drawn from the realms of Technology, Entertainment, and Design. Now, TED draws from inspiration from every well:

Today, TED is best thought of as a global community. It’s a community welcoming people from every discipline and culture who seek a deeper understanding of the world.

TED’s yearly global conference in Edinburgh is one of the most significant events a person could hope to attend. The speakers whose “TED Talks” are offered for free online include “the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers,” who get to talk for no more than 18 minutes.

Richard Wilkinson’s speech only ran 16 minutes and 34 seconds, and he made a lot of good points in that time about how economic inequality harms societies. Does it make any sense at all that some of the wealthiest countries also have the greatest economic gaps between rich and poor?

Extensive research done by Wilkinson, who is emeritus professor of public health at the University of Nottingham, revealed an interesting corollary to his contention that more equal societies almost always fare better in a number of important ways. Some countries get along fine with redistribution of wealth, and some succeed because there is a smaller difference in the range of before-tax income. The thing is, he says:

[W]e conclude that it doesn’t much matter how you get your greater equality, as long as you get there somehow. We’ve got to constrain income, the bonus culture incomes at the top… [T]he take-home message though is that we can improve the real quality of human life by reducing the differences in incomes between us.

The studies were set up with carefully crafted parameters. The economic disparity between the rich and the poor was measured by taking the top 20% and the bottom 20%, and comparing them to find out exactly how much difference there is. Here’s what they came up with:

The more unequal countries are doing worse on all these kinds of social problems. It’s an extraordinarily close correlation.

We’re talking about all kinds of problems, certain of which are more pervasive at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder, all of them worse in the more unequal countries — not just a little bit worse, but anything from twice as common to 10 times as common. Wilkinson says:

What we’re looking at is general social disfunction related to inequality. It’s not just one or two things that go wrong, it’s most things.

Especially in the area of health and longevity, there is “a lot of difference between the poor and the rest of us,” according to Wilkinson. The research looks at life expectancy, infant mortality, homicide, teen birth rates, and many other indicators. Mental illness is one, including addiction to alcohol or hard drugs. Whole societies, Wilkinson says, have three times the mental illness rates as other societies, and it’s all tied up with economic inequality. Inequality has psychosocial effects:

More to do with feelings of superiority and inferiority, of being valued and devalued, respected and disrespected… The big change in our understanding of drivers of chronic health in the rich developed world is how important chronic stress from social sources is affecting the immune system, the cardiovascular system.

Psychosocial stress has the same detrimental effects on the human body and mind as any other kind of stress. Mental illness leads to homelessness, and homelessness leads to mental illness. Another vicious cycle is created by what Joel Dyer calls the “perpetual prisoner machine.” Where do homeless people come from? Sometimes, from prison. But that doesn’t mean they should be exiled forever. They’re not disposable people. And if a person never did time before, being homeless increases the likelihood of it, exponentially.

Wilkinson illustrates again and again how inequality affects not just the poor but the entire society. Although a closer approach to equality makes the most difference at the bottom, he points out, there are benefits at the top as well. Trust level is an interesting one. In the most unequal societies, only about 15% of the population feel that other people can be trusted. In the most equal societies, the number is more like 60%. In more equal societies, there is more community involvement, and that means making sure everybody is involved, who wants to be. Including people experiencing homelessness, who, if community is real, can and will be helped to escape that condition.

“How economic inequality harms societies” can also be reached via Universal Living Wage  (click on “What’s New” on the menu on the left).


Source: “About TED,” TED.com
Source: “Richard Wilkinson: How economic inequality harms societies,” dotSUB.com
Image by Jerry.


Activist Heroes of Homelessness

Homeless at the Art GalleryMany citizens and groups give enormous amounts of time and money, and even face the wrath of the law, to make sure that people experiencing homelessness have something to eat, and they deserve all the support they can get. Outside the realm of food, other goods and services are offered to street people by an array of organizations and maverick individuals.

In the Canadian city of Windsor, chiropractor Dean Tapak shows up once a week at the Windsor Essex Community Health Centre and treats low-income clients for free. He is affiliated with the Street Health, a program that provides showers, dental care, and other health-related services to about 4,000 people. Dr. Tapak personally helped more than 200 clients.

The California community of Los Gatos-Monte Sereno annually recognizes the police department’s Crisis Intervention Team, including an Officer of the Year. Last year, that honor went to Leo Coddington, a cop who takes the trouble to learn the names of the town’s homeless residents and figure out how to help them.

Coddington is particularly aware of the needs of homeless veterans, having graduated from West Point and spent 12 years in the army himself. After joining the police force, he took a 40-hour continuing education course in police interaction with vulnerable populations, and became part of the Santa Clara County Collaborative on Housing and Homeless Issues. Journalist Sheila Sanchez interestingly points out that Coddington is a “housing first” kind of guy, who believes the most effective way to help is to get people under a roof first, then address their mental disability, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, or alcoholism.

The same attitude of meeting people where they are, without expectations or judgment, is shared by another man who does similar work in Los Angeles and credits the philosophy of TV personality Oprah Winfrey as his inspiration. Unlike the police officer, Troy Eric Isaac is not bankrolled by taxpayers, but by a philanthropist who supplies the funds that Isaac uses to help the homeless.

Journalist Kevin Ferguson describes Isaac is “sort of freelance homeless advocate” who walks around the inner city looking for need and figuring out how to meet it. For one, the answer might be to sit with the person and sing a song. For another, it might be to make phone calls every day checking on the availability of a room with a long waiting list.

There are also philanthropists in the Canadian city of Vancouver where, in this case, the donors allocated $30 million of their fortune to the homeless, under conditions so particular that the local law had to be changed to accommodate them. Namely, if the city could figure out how to put an existing facility back into working order, the anonymous couple’s gift would be structured in such a way as to take care of the annual operating costs without the need for further government support.

The old Taylor Manor was originally built as a home for the elderly, but has not been used for that purpose for at least a decade. The renovation will take about two years and at least $14 million of public funds and corporate donations, and will eventually house 56 (no longer) street people with “complex mental issues.” Reporter Jeff Lee tells us that Vancouver’s homeless population almost doubled in a year, and quotes Prof. Kerry Jang of the University of British Columbia:

Many of our staff have been out there and we see the suffering every single day. And every day I feel hopeless because what can we do? We put [people] into hospital for a while and they are let back out on the street again with no hope. It is just a revolving door, a revolving door, a revolving door.

At St. Colette Church in Livonia, Michigan, a group has a dual-purpose ministry. Mainly, for people experiencing homelessness in Detroit, they crochet or knit sleeping mats to serve as insulation from the cold and damp of the ground. Secondarily, they make the mats from “plarn,” which is plastic yarn made from cut-up retail shopping bags. It takes as many as 700 bags to make each sleeping mat, so that’s a lot of recycling. About 40 parishioners have signed up, of whom about half turn up at any given weekly meeting. Reportedly, a Chicago church has actually published a DVD with full instructions on how to make these mats.

Throughout America, thousands of faith-based groups, from venerable giants like St. Vincent de Paul to the little mat-knitting club, work to help the homeless. Perhaps wanting some favorable press too, a number of Austinites founded their own group with the motto, “Toiletries and more, under the freeway — without the preaching,” and a homepage that misspells “sporadic.” Their website lists the specific items they distribute: toothbrushes and toothpaste, soap, shampoo, TP, hand sanitizer, disposable shavers, socks, gloves, granola, and bottled water.

Water is also distributed by ThirstAid of Maricopa County, Arizona, through a program that has been very successful in the past years. The heat there is brutal, and the water saves lives. Before the end of September, they reckon they will find the money for, and give out, 500,000 bottles of water. Half a million — man, that’s a lot of plastic bottles headed for the landfill, and it raises a question. Could this be done in a greener way? Couldn’t people, instead, be given canteens or camping-style water bottles, and provided with sources of clean drinking water from which to refill them? Just asking.

But, getting back to Austin, the exigency of events made the Emergency Whistle Defense Program one of the most important stories in the Texas capital. The ability to produce a loud distress call empowers a person experiencing homelessness alone in the night, or any time. The program is giving away whistles and teaching the signal — three blasts, and pause before repeating if necessary. The distribution of “thunder whistles” has been covered extensively by local television, including stories by radio stations NPR and KLBJ, News 8-YNN, KEYE-TV, and KVUE-News 24.

They all interviewed House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell on the value of such noise as a deterrent to violence. Omar Lewis of KXAN-News 36 also interviewed Vincent Godoy, father of Valerie Godoy, murdered in Austin in June. FOX 7 TV‘s Derrick Mitcham said:

According to the Austin Police Department, violent crimes against the homeless population make up 38 percent of all violent crimes downtown.

Nope, it is not too late to sign the new women’s shelter petition!


Source: “Homeless helped by chiropractor,” The Windsor Star, 02/25/12
Source: “Town Cop Recognized for Work With Homeless,” Los Gatos, CA Patch, 03/29/11
Source: “Helping the homeless any way he can,” SCPR.org, 01/13/12
Source: “Anonymous wealthy couple’s $30-million gift to help homeless in Vancouver,” The Vancouver Sun, 06/29/12
Source: “Parishioners make sleeping mats for homeless from plastic bags,” Hometownlife.com, 08/05/12
Source: “Atheists Helping the Homeless,” AtheistsHelpingtheHomeless.org
Source: “ThirstAid: Human Services Campus Water Drive,” Cassaz.org, 06/11/12
Source: “Sounding alarm on violence on homeless,” KXAN.com, 08/06/12
Source: “Advocacy group to help homeless blow whistle on crime,” MyFoxAustin.com, 08/06/12
Image by quinet (Thomas Quine), used under its Creative Commons license.


To Protect Women From Violence, Austin Needs More Shelters

whistlesAustin, you beautiful, friendly, innovative, progressive, creative, marvelous metropolis, what is happening to you? Last year, House the Homeless asked the city to ease up on the “No Sit/No Lie” ordinance. The slogan was, “Don’t give Austin a black eye,” and a bunch of protesters showed up at the City Council meeting with symbolically bruised (by makeup) eye sockets.

To give a person, institution, or city a black eye means, traditionally, that something harms their character and reputation. Libel and slander are about false accusations. When we speak of somebody having a black eye, the connotation is of an accurate charge. Check out this definition:

What does ‘black eye’ mean? A mark of shame, a humiliating setback, as in

That there are enough homeless folks to need another shelter is a black eye for the administration.

We are not making this up. That example is given by Christine Ammer in the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms.

If refusing to allow people to sit down can give a city a black eye, what can a string of murders do? Since November, there have been at least six deaths of people experiencing homelessness that could be called suspicious. In July, there was a definite killing, this time of a man, but possibly linked to the death of Valerie Godoy in June. In the latest atrocity, the victim appears to have been fatally attacked as he slept. Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless comments:

It’s not safe out here for these people. They are vulnerable. We only have 700 beds for 4,000 homeless people in Austin. There are no-sit ordinances. Nobody can get any rest without getting a ticket.

Richard told The Statesman:

We just hope no one is preying on the homeless. They are already totally without almost everything but hope.

Kathy Ridings, Director of Social Services for Austin’s Salvation Army, says:

It’s a concern for everybody that our community be able to respond appropriately to the growing need of homeless women for shelter and housing resources. We don’t want anybody to be sleeping outside, but for some folks its a life-threatening issue.

A coalition of service providers is collaborating in an effort to increase the number of shelter beds for homeless women, and Ridings is co-chair of a subcommittee addressing the need for more resources. The other co-chair is Irit Umani, Executive Director of Trinity Center, which also serves the spiritual, emotional, and physical needs of people experiencing homelessness and poverty in Austin. Also involved are CAN and ECHO. The former is the Community Action Network, a partnership of government, nonprofit, private, and faith-based organizations that work together to enhance the social, health, educational, and economic well-being of Central Texas. ECHO is the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, a planning body whose literature says:

Working with 90 community members monthly from local non-profits, businesses and government, ECHO develops, prioritizes, and promotes strategies to prevent end homelessness.

On its homepage, the nonprofit group keeps a running total of how many people are helped. For instance, 1,095 Travis County children received some kind of service in the past week, and the number of shelter stays for women is 618, which presumably would be divided by seven nights to arrive at the actual number of homeless women who slept safely. For agencies that help, the situation is complicated by the fact that homeless women comprise two distinct populations: solo, and with children. Mothers with families need a lot of resources.

Street violence

And safety is a crucial issue. Take a look at a city that is similar to Austin in many ways — Portland, Oregon. In the late 1980s, Portland developed a 12-point action plan and resolved that no one requesting shelter should be denied it. In 1988, an official report stated:

The emergency shelter system has capacity to handle those who need it. Anyone who wants emergency housing can now get it. No one is forced to sleep in the streets.

That was a shining moment in one city’s history, but good intentions could not keep up with reality. As of December 2011, Suzanne Stevens reported that the number of homeless families in Portland had increased by 29% since the previous year, requests for emergency shelter had increased by 15%, and 25% (or one-quarter) of those requesting shelter were turned away due to the lack of beds. Sheltered or not, here’s the point. Just a few days ago, Sarah Mirk of the Portland Mercury reported that:

[…] nearly 40 percent of homeless people in Portland report being the victim of an assault.

Austin and the future of women experiencing homelessness

In Austin, also just a few days ago, Andrea Ball wrote for The Statesman that violence is “a routine part of life on the streets.” What is being done? In the short term, the intention is to follow the model of cold weather shelters — in other words, to treat the current crisis as a life-threatening emergency, which it is. Efforts are being made to determine if more shelter capacity can somehow be wrung out of the existing system. The Salvation Army, Ridings says, is over capacity already, with people sleeping on mats on the floor.

One proposal is for a network of churches to provide a safe sleeping option. The aim is to have a trial program in place by the first of September, with the entry point being Trinity Episcopal Center. Vans will be needed to take participants to church shelters on a rotating basis, and much else will be needed as well.

As part of the short-term effort toward preservation of life, the House the Homeless Emergency Whistle Defense Program is distributing 1,000 tornado whistles with lanyards. The distress signal is to tweet three times, pause, tweet three more times, until, hopefully, the threat is scared away or help arrives. Hundreds of whistles have been distributed by Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH), Caritas, and Trinity Episcopal Center. Alan Graham, president of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, offered on behalf of the organization to further carry out the distribution process. Here is what this amazing group does:

Going out onto city streets every night with our catering trucks, MLF serves food, basic clothing, hygiene products, etc. to our brothers and sisters living on or near the streets. We are proud to say that our trucks provide food and clothing and promote dignity to our homeless brothers and sisters in need 365 days a year.

Part of the intermediate plan might involve relocating women with children to the Salvation Army’s other shelter, which would open up 26 beds for single women at the downtown location. In the long term, a women’s emergency shelter is definitely needed, along with long-term supportive housing. At the invitation of chairman Tom Davis, a resolution on the subject is being presented to Austin’s Human Rights Commission. The activists are consulting with city council members and the office of the mayor, exploring the possibility of being allocated a portion of the affordable housing bond if it passes in November.

Do this

Here is the call to action: the petition for a women’s shelter already has, online and on paper, more than 3,500 signatures and it can always use more. Here is another call to action: listen for three tweets, pause, three tweets, which means somebody is in trouble, and go help. The Austin police have been consulted and seem willing to help in responding.

Incidentally, this is worth repeating about the Valerie Godoy murder: “A website for BMX enthusiasts mentioned the crime, and a very large number of respondents left comments ranging from cavalier and flippant to seriously, disturbingly ugly.” Is there a responsible adult out there who can reach these extreme biker kids and win them to the side of the angels? Maybe if Valerie Godoy had been armed with a distress whistle, the BMX park kids could have been heroes. What about you?


Source: “What does ‘black eye’ mean?,” YourDictionary.com
Source: “Police seek help in solving deaths of homeless people,” Statesman, 07/26/12
Source: “1988 Edition Preface: Progress Toward Breaking the Cycle of Homelessness,” PortlandOnline.com, 1988
Source: “No. of homeless Portland families up 29%,Portland Business Journal, 12/15/11
Source: “Ugh. Two Arrested for Assaults of Homeless People,” Portland Mercury, 08/02/12
Source: “As slayings raise concerns, homeless Austinites agree violence is common,” Statesman.com, 08/04/12