His name was Michael and he was found in the street, severely beaten with injuries to the head. Death did not arrive immediately, but rather loitered a few days while he lay comatose in the hospital. An occasional tenant of the Volunteers of America (VOA) Emergency Shelter in Columbus, Ohio, Michael was struggling to stay out of trouble and get his life back together. Like many people who turn 40, he wanted to start anew. He never got the chance.
In comparison, Richard had a relatively peaceful passing at age 65 at the Arbors Subacute Center, a local rehabilitation facility. An Army veteran who spent three years in the military from 1955-58, he worked as a housekeeper at the VOA in Mansfield and Columbus. A good-natured fellow, he took pride in his job. He died of cardiac arrest and cancer of the esophagus.
Robert, 35, and Lanny, 40, were claimed by the river. Robert, a “drifter” who spent time in the Columbus Sheltered Workshop Program, was found in the Great Miami River near Dayton, while two fishermen discovered Lanny, an occasional tenant of the Emergency Shelter, floating in the Scioto River in Columbus. Reasons for the death of both: unknown.
This is but a partial roll call of the nearly fifteen homeless men who have perished in the Central Ohio area over the past couple of years. Because they are out in the open, they’re vulnerable to stabbings, gunshot wounds, illnesses, and fatality from natural causes. More and more seem to come to a violent end, particularly in growing cities like Columbus due to the upswing of drug-related and other crimes.
Like their lives, their deaths are often out in public: in buildings, in the water, on the street. Many times, “no one claims them,” states Carmella Boilon, manager of the Men’s Home for the VOA in Columbus. The coroner keeps them in cold storage for about a month and if no friends or relatives show up — which is often the case — the body is cremated, with the ashes boxed and buried in an unmarked grave. “These are society’s forgotten, who by choice or chance, have no one. For whatever reason, they’ve burned all their bridges.”
But not everyone has discarded their memory. For the past 20 years, on or around each November 2, a non-denominational Christian service is held at the West Broad Street building in Columbus in their honor. It is loosely modeled after All Soul’s Day, a ritual originating in the Roman Catholic church on the same date, whose purpose was to assist souls in purgatory in gaining final admittance to heaven via prayers and almsgiving from the living. First instituted in the monasteries of Cluny, France, in 998, observance soon became widespread, with visitation to graves by relatives and friends and the saying of Mass for the dead three times a day.
The Columbus tradition began as the result of the 1977 death of Raymond, a 65-year-old “down-and-outer” with a drinking problem who fell from a ledge while sleeping off a binge, according to the now-defunct Columbus Citizen-Journal. His body lay unclaimed for several weeks and Graham LeStourgeon, then director of the VOA who retired this June, came up with the idea for a simple service to commemorate Raymond and other overlooked indigents who died anonymously. Approximately 40 folks, including the homeless and shelter workers, showed up that first time to hear a Lutheran seminarian quote Bible passages and John Donne. Reporter Douglas McCormick honored Raymond with a eulogy in the Citizen-Journal:
“A sparrow fell beneath the cracks and out of the bottom of society.
Today all that remains is a box of ashes about 8 by 8 inches…
Be it remembered….”
Although the faces differ, the service — which is short, only about 30 minutes — hasn’t changed much over the years. Participants still sit on folding chairs in the high-ceilinged, elegantly restored former railroad depot. The Lord’s Prayer is recited and hymns are sung. A list of the men who died over the past two decades, along with this year’s new decedents, is read, a total of about 175 names. Stories about the deceased, most of whom wandered through the shelter’s doors at one time or another, are shared. The congregation mostly listens in respectful silence, although reminiscences are always welcome.
“A lot of times, you’ll hear the men say, ‘I remember him. He slept two beds away from me. I worked with him on the truck,'” observes Boilon. “The point is, to keep it uplifting. These men have gone to a better place. The burdens they once carried are now made lighter.”
Even finding out who has passed on can be a challenge. “We get bits and pieces from the newspaper or from word of mouth,” she continues. “We always try to contact the families, and sometimes they do claim the bodies.” Mostly, however, VOA personnel never know whether loved ones are even aware of the indigent’s death.
The hope is that the service might provide an illumination of insight, a resolve to begin again. Life is short and the prayers can serve as a bittersweet reminder. “At one point, most of the deceased tried to make a new start through the sheltered workshop program” or the thrice-weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings held at the VOA. Although “the men usually keep to themselves and don’t say much, on occasion, someone expresses the fact that the service has opened his eyes and he realizes there are other ways to live besides drifting around.” Then, in the truest sense, a release from purgatory has been made.