For homeless, faceless even in death

By Michael Newberger |

Earlier this year, the remains of Christopher Wood were finally identified, three years after their discovery in the woods off State Road 312. People searching for cans came across his body, which was so decomposed that his identity and even cause of death could not be determined. DNA evidence from the St. Johns County Medical Examiner’s Office finally turned up a match for Wood, who was reportedly homeless in 2008 and originally a resident of Georgia.

The St. John’s County Sheriff’s Office is still trying to find more information about how he died, but for many homeless, this isn’t exactly a rare occurrence. Illness and lack of access to medical care is a common reason for deaths among the homeless, and disconnected from family and the rest of society, many are forgotten.

Renee Morris, the director of the St. Francis House homeless shelter in Lincolnville, has seen her share of people passing away after years on the street. This year she said there have been a “handful” of deaths, but the worst was in 2008 when she had 16 residents pass away. She said the amount of inattention to chronic illnesses, sometimes over years, makes it hard to help the homeless stay healthy.

Christopher Wood

Sometimes diseases that normal people would find little more than an inconvenience, such as high blood pressure, have been ignored for so long that they’ve turned life-threatening. Even after treatment, sometimes the damage done is too great. Morris said the shelter receives people who are terminal and they do their best to have them pass away in a safe, clean environment. However, some choose to go their own way and die on the streets.

One person that stands out to her the most was a man named Jackie. Jackie lived at the shelter long enough that they formed a close friendship, and Morris helped him receive numerous treatments for the mouth cancer he had developed. Jackie and his girlfriend, a chronic alcoholic, had been moved to the shelter’s transitional housing program in an apartment on Washington Street. By then the cancer had taken over.

“I walked in one day and he was no bigger around then a pencil,” she said.

She knew he didn’t have much time left, and Hospice was called in to help. By the next day Jackie had passed away.

“It was a blessing to have him pass away someplace clean and safe,” Morris said. “It was a blessing.”

Jackie had no family contacts, and Morris is still in possession of his ashes. There was no one else left to claim his remains.

While most people have family or friends who would miss them or take care of their remains when they die, most homeless talk about wives, children and parents they’ve left behind.

Armando Garcia has been living 35 years in St. Augustine, most of which on the street. An admitted alcoholic, he talked of the ways homeless people can receive healthcare, usually by hopping the bus to Flagler Hospital. However, he admitted that the harsh conditions on the street often lead to dying. Garcia said that the biggest ailment isn’t necessarily physical — it’s the anguish that comes from having such a disconnect from society and that sometimes they simply just give up.

“People are not right mentally,” he said. “They feel that they have no worth.”

Catherine Payne, a public relations officer for the Sheriff’s Office, said they see about one or two transient deaths a year. But she thinks that the rate may increase as the economy continues to struggle.

The sheriff’s office attempts to find the family members of the recently deceased, but she said it’s a difficult task since most don’t stay in contact with family members.

“As law enforcement, we want to give people the right resources, but as the economy declines the resources are drying up.”

Payne worries that the closing of the St. Johns County Mental Health Services could also affect the homeless population negatively.

“Working in the south of the county as a patrol officer, the majority of the homeless populations that I encountered were mentally ill, and they either were not being treated or were refusing to be treated,” she said.

Even more disconcerting, according to the Florida Department of Children and Families, as the economy remains stagnant and homes continue to be foreclosed, the homeless population is likely to increase. The 2010 report found there were 57,643 people in the state counted as homeless. Out of that, more than 35 percent of the reported homeless had some kind of disabling ailment. Out of the 40 percent of the ailments registered as physical, 27 percent were dealing with alcohol or drug addiction, and 26 percent were mental illness.

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