A final home for the homeless

Posted: March 31, 2015 in Prose
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

By Bruce Deachman, Ottawa Citizen, February 24, 2013

Read more: http://ow.ly/L2ANI

OTTAWA — Ottawa police detective Tim Nolan takes it personally if he can’t track down someone’s next of kin.

Although most deaths around Ottawa don’t require a lot of legwork to find family members — they’re often sitting in a chair beside the deceased when he dies — some are more difficult, and Nolan will scour databases and search engines the world over to find a blood relative.

And with five of his six years in a patrol car spent in the ByWard Market, he’s familiar with those living on the street and in shelters.

“I have a real soft spot for those guys.” he says. “They’re just victims of their vices, and I want to carry out my investigation with empathy and make sure my I’s are dotted and my T’s crossed, because at the end of the day, I want to be able to walk away from this investigation — or any investigation — holding my head up and saying, ‘That’s what I did, and I did it right.’”

The death of a homeless person can bring with it distinct challenges — finding family members, for example, or someone willing to claim the body. The resources devoted to seeing that a transient’s final sendoff is in keeping with what he or his family would want are considerable, and can involve the City, coroners, funeral directors, police and social agencies.

In the event that death occurs on the street, a coroner first rules on whether it is suspicious. If it is, then the police investigate accordingly. If not, then the next step is for the police to find and notify the deceased’s family.

“There’s a tremendous sense of failure if we can’t find someone’s next of kin,” says Nolan. “That said, there’s a tremendous sense of elation when we do find the next of kin.”

Sometimes, he says, people on the street might carry a note indicating whom to contact in the event of an accident, or worse. A bank card or library card, cellphone, expired driver’s license or piece of mail can also help locate family. In some cases, the funerals are prearranged. In others, however, information is scarce.

If a deceased has been arrested before, their sheet may include the name of a family contact. If he has a criminal record, an address will be listed. If necessary, Nolan will contact Interpol for assistance.

“But something as easy as Googling his name can help,” he adds, “or Facebook.”

Nolan tells of a particularly vexing case last summer involving the death of a 50ish Ottawa man, living in community housing and estranged from his family. According to the Canadian Police Information Centre database, a man with the same name and date-of-birth was linked to an address in Guelph. A phone call to Guelph police confirmed that the deceased’s mother lived at the address, but when police arrived, they discovered that she, too, had died.

But the Guelph police passed along a Kingston address where the woman’s name was once linked to a police report. Kingston police, meanwhile, told Nolan that the woman had another son who, in the 1980s, lived in Ingleside, near Cornwall. OPP in Ingleside had no information, so Nolan looked on Canada411.ca and started calling people in that area with the same surname.

“Lo and behold,” says Nolan, “one guy said, ‘Check with my brother, he’s the genealogist of the family.’”

Nolan did, and within a couple of days later learned that the deceased was a distant relative, and that he had a brother in Bowmanville. Nolan eventually found the brother — a transport truck driver — and reached him on his cellphone on the Trans-Canada Highway outside Fredericton, N.B.

“Our goal is to have an officer give that death notification face-to-face,” Nolan says, “but that just wasn’t the case this time.

“But when I hung up the phone,” he adds, “it was like solving a major case. It was that gratifying.”

It’s rare that a death leads down such a convoluted path, and Nolan says most cases are resolved in a matter of hours.

“In my two years here, I haven’t heard of a body we had to bury without finding the next of kin.”

But most homeless deaths in Ottawa don’t involve the police to such a degree. The Ottawa Mission, for example, has run its own 14-bed hospice since 2001, with most of its patients previously living in marginal housing — rooming houses and shelters — before being referred to them by a hospital.

Unlike other hospices, such as Maycourt, where patients typically have family they can stay with until the last few weeks of their lives, the average stay for patients at the Mission’s hospice is between four and six months.

“They’re much younger,” notes Marg Smeaton, the Mission’s manager of health care services. “So apart from the fact that they have a disease that’s killing them, the rest of their body is still young.

“And they’re tough. They’ve lived tough lives out in the cold.”

Most of their patients at the Mission hospice have a do-not-resuscitate order in place, so a coroner need not be called when one dies. Instead, many of the downtown organizations whose clients are largely transient call Kelly Funeral Home on Somerset Street West.

“There’s a natural tendency to want to help people,” says Kelly funeral director Gordon Walker. “That’s always been the foundation of funeral service, and the business side is quite separate.

“So our relationship with organizations, and people who are less fortunate, perhaps, than ourselves, has always been very strong. It doesn’t have to be someone who is homeless; it could be someone who is just down on their luck.”

Covering the costs of a burial depends on a number of factors. Certainly family may wish to claim the body and take control of the situation, but often it can’t or won’t. If the deceased received income from either the Ontario Disability Support Program or Ontario Works, or contributed to the Canada Pension Plan, then some of that money will go to pay for associated costs of burial.

If the family can’t or won’t cover the costs, then they must apply to the municipal government, in this case the City of Ottawa, to pick up the tab, although the remuneration the City offers doesn’t necessarily cover all the costs.

Funeral homes, for example, are paid $1,400 from the City for each such funeral, while its costs — including an inexpensive casket and cremation — typically run closer to $3,500, leaving the funeral home to make up the difference.

“We’ve always had our front-line staff care for needs of the individual and the family,” notes Walker. “In the case of some people who are homeless, their family are actually street people, so we’re happy to provide visitation and the opportunity to collectively say goodbye, whether here at the funeral home or the Mission, and usually they’ll have some sort of ceremony.

“Our job is to connect the dots,” he adds.

Kelly’s will also help find family members, and it’s not uncommon, says Walker, for a body to remain in their care for upwards of six months while they look.

“We might find someone who worked with them years ago, or who was a neighbour. Many times we’ve had success like that, and it’s led to a family member.”

And while families may claim ashes and remains for funerals elsewhere, area cemeteries all have land devoted to burials of the homeless, who are often interred without a marker. The Mission maintains a group plot at Beechwood Cemetery where 40 or 50 cremated remains are buried and names and dates added to a common headstone as needed. Additionally, as cemeteries run out of real estate, they’ll secure space at other graveyards.

The rarest of homeless deaths is one in which no family or friends can be found. In her 11 years at the Mission, during which a little more than 200 deaths have occurred, Smeaton says it’s only happened twice that a deceased body remained unclaimed. And while she doesn’t have the resources that the police do, she’ll exhaust every corner of the Internet before giving up.

“There’s almost always someone I can find,” she says. “We have time.”

In the event that no family member can be found, however, the body is governed by the Anatomy Act, in which case the coroner switches hats and becomes an Inspector of Anatomy. It’s his job to ensure that every investigative lead has been exhausted and then issue a warrant — Warrant to Dispose of an Unclaimed Body — to the municipality where the death occurred.

“The municipality is then obligated to bury the body,” says regional coroner Dr. Roger Skinner. “So they will often, through their own social services department, do their own search to see if there’s anyone they know of to claim the body, in addition to whether the decedent was in receipt of social benefits that might help cover the costs of burial.”

It’s then the municipality’s responsibility to have a funeral provider inter the body, usually in a very basic manner — likely no service or marker, and the most inexpensive container. Unclaimed bodies are not usually cremated, in the event that family members are eventually found and have their own wishes for the disposal.

Dr. Skinner estimates that these sorts of burials number only in the dozens each year in Ottawa.

“It’s quite a process, and it’s something we try to do well because obviously there are situations where people don’t have apparent claimants, but in fact there are people out there who are interested and do want to provide this last service to a family member or a friend. So we do diligently try to find any claimants that we can.”

Read more: http://ow.ly/L2ANI

Comments
  1. ASH says:

    Bittersweet and noble, sadly inspiring, left me tearning for a God

    Like

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