Updated: Apr 6, 2022
How do you honor your dead? In North America, a common practice is a funeral followed by a few days of mourning. In Mexico, on November 1st, people celebrate "Dia De Los Muertos" with altars and offerings of food and drinks for their deceased relatives. Beautiful flags, art displays, and sugar skulls are all ways that today's society honors this special day, The Day of the Dead.
What a wonderful way to remember our loved ones. What a great tradition, to honor the dead. So why do we forget about those who have no one to honor them? What happens when a homeless person dies? Who mourns them? Where are they buried?
Who manages their body, belongings, and most importantly what happens to their identity when they pass away?
These men and women are our friends, a part of our community, but when they die we often don't even know. They simply disappear. Here's why:
Death in the homeless community
Many people do not know how or what many go through when living in the streets. However, homeless community members rarely have proper healthcare or after death plans. And why would they? Today they are simply trying to do their best to survive.
This is a global issue, not just relevant to our Tampa-based nonprofit, just as the problems that lead to homelessness and the causes of death for this community are global.
Here are a few of the common reasons for death amongst the homeless:
The average homeless person dies between the age of 20 and 58. As they approach their end of life they experience a greater amount of pain and psychological symptoms (see Journal of Pain and Symptom Management), up to 3x more pain then a person with a caregiver according to the Handbook of Death & Dying.
The homeless do not have the ability to pay for care and often have no one to call or family close by. These are not just homeless problems, these are issues we as a society need to address together.
What happens to their bodies when the homeless die
I made a few phone calls to facilities throughout Tampa, FL and could not reach anyone with clear answers. What I did find was this, many unclaimed bodies are sent out for research, depending on the severity of death (ThinkProgress.com), and used to find out how or what could be done to prevent these types of deaths and or illnesses (ScienceDirect).
The bodies first sit in the morgue up to thirty days. If unclaimed they will belong to the county which then determines what will happen next. Either the body will be donated to scientific research or cremated. This is a common practice around the world. Still there are variants on how the unclaimed bodies are handled in every state or county.
Who pays for the funeral of a homeless person when they die?
There is no funeral, unless a nonprofit steps in. Tax paying dollars pay for the disposal of a corpse.
How we honor the living and the dead
The Bautista Project (tBP) is one of many organizations tackling the issue of homelessness, including end of life arrangements.
As a non-profit that seeks to end homelessness one person at a time, we take an individualized approach and work to make sure those we serve have access to proper health care.
Addressing homelessness and healthcare directly will help prevent unnecessary deaths.
tBP also provides assistance to those who have passed by providing a proper memorial and ensuring they are not forgotten.
The homeless veteran
This subject is important to me as someone who serves in the U.S. Military because so many veterans are homeless. I will continue to advocate for those who do not have a voice and will also, continue to research the outcomes of their bodies.
My work within the homeless community has placed me in contact with men and women who:
have been forgotten
suffer from preventable illness
have cancer or a terminal illness
struggle with substance abuse
have mental health issues that are left untreated
are veterans and civilians
range in all ages, from teens to the elderly
My friends on the streets, and those in similar circumstances, will eventually be placed in a morgue, alone and forgotten, as if their life meant nothing.
These are the most common outcomes when a homeless community member dies on the streets.
Thankfully there are organizations out there that are helping those in need, advocating for those who have passed and also, help them create end of life plans.
As a society we should honor both our living and our dead. We need to have systems and plans in place for those who are experiencing homelessness to avoid a painful and tragic death on the streets, a death that could have been prevented if we had cared enough.
Join us in solving homelessness!