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Homeless unsheltered in life, often unclaimed in death

By JO CIAVAGLIA

Bucks County Courier Times, via AP

NORRISTOWN, Pa. — Even in death, Todd Donohue is homeless.

The 51-year-old man was a frequent visitor at Norristown shelters in the years before his 2016 death, according to coroner records.

In the years since, his cremated remains have sat on a shelf in the Montgomery County morgue.

Donohue is among at least a half dozen unsheltered homeless who in death remain unclaimed in Montgomery County. It’s a population that presents special challenges for government agencies that search for next of kin, putting them at highest risk for abandonment.

The homeless are more likely to lack birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and rental leases, which are some common pieces of identification that police and coroners use. They move frequently and keep to themselves. The organizations that work closely with the homeless are often an overlooked resource in family searches, advocates said.

The difficulties go beyond locating next of kin.

No government funding exists for final arrangements assistance for most families or charitable organizations.

“Honestly, there aren’t really any resources that we are aware of,” said Erin Lukoss, executive director of the Bucks County Opportunity Council, which has a homeless outreach program. “From a community perspective, everyone could agree we want people to have a dignified exit from this world. It’s really sad.”

The issue resurfaced recently after the deaths of two men who lived in Bristol Township homeless camps that dot wooded areas. Roughly one quarter of the 359 homeless counted in Bucks County last year lived in encampments, as well as overnight emergency shelters and vehicles.

Family claimed the body of one of the dead, according to advocates for the homeless. The other has been stuck in the Bucks County morgue for nearly four weeks.

No government agencies officially track street homeless deaths in Bucks or Montgomery counties, but more than a dozen over the last decade can be identified based on media stories and advocate accounts.

Family claimed some of them. No internment information was found for four people in Bucks, though the names are not among the list of unclaimed dead the coroner’s office provided to this news organization.

The cremated remains of Leo Murphy were unclaimed in Bucks County coroner’s office for nearly a decade despite an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, which made him eligible for a free burial at a veterans’ cemetery.

Last August, his ashes were interred with three other unclaimed Bucks County veterans at Washington Crossing National Veterans Cemetery after this news organization identified them as military veterans.

‘He sat there so long’

Among the biggest obstacles with the homeless is the reluctance to disclose family contact information, social service and charity groups said.

Personal information is requested from guests as part of the registration protocol for Code Blue emergency overnight shelters, which open when outside temperatures fall below 26 degrees, according to Penny Martin, executive director of Advocates for the Homeless and Those in Need, the volunteer group that organizes the shelter program in Lower Bucks.

“Sometimes when you ask for an emergency contact they say they don’t have one or it’s another homeless person,” Martin said.

Montgomery County’s housing crisis response team, “Your Way Home,” which works with the homeless, continuously encourages its clients to reach out to family and friends, program manager Kayleigh Silver said.

When social workers get a lead about a client’s family member, they will attempt to mediate a connection, Silver added.

Social service and charity groups are in the best position to collect personal information from the homeless, but they are a resource that police and coroners rarely tap, advocates said.

A few years ago, ATHN volunteers were working with a man to get his birth certificate when he showed up at a Code Blue shelter night complaining he didn’t feel well, Martin said. An ambulance took the man to the hospital, where he died.

No one notified anyone at the Code Blue shelter about the death, Martin said.

For a month the man’s body was left unclaimed at the county morgue before Martin found out and provided the coroner his next-of-kin information.

“It was just awful he sat there so long,” Martin added. “We need to learn that in what we do the advocates speaking for the homeless.”

The roadblocks

With Donohue, the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office turned to an online group of volunteer genealogists and sleuths that work with coroners and medical examiners to identify next of kin.

The group found his father and brother, but they were dead.

His mom, though, appeared to be in northern Virginia.

Two months after his death, the Fairfax County police went to the address and learned she moved and left no forwarding address, according to coroner records.

Not all searches, however, hit roadblocks.

The Bucks County Coroner’s Office found a sister of John Moser, who was found dead Dec. 30, apparently of natural causes, in his tent tucked deep in the Bristol Township woods.

The 55-year-old Moser was a fixture at shared dinner events, local church services and Code Blue shelter nights. He was a popular guy among the homeless and those who work with the population.

The sister directed the coroner to Moser’s only child, a 26-year-old son named Evan, who lives near Knoxville, Tennessee.

His parents split up after the family moved from Burlington County, New Jersey, to Tennessee, Evan Moser said in a telephone interview.

Evan was 10 the last time he had contact with his dad. His memories of him are as faded as the ink on a gas pump receipt.

He remembers dad was a hockey fan and loved the Philadelphia Flyers and music, particularly the Grateful Dead. He appears in only a handful of old photos his aunt gave him.

“I hardly remember his face,” he said.

About eight years ago Evan Moser saw his father for the first time in a video about homeless people in Bucks County.

“Me and him were just 10 numbers away from each other,” Evan Moser said of their phone numbers. “Hard to believe how easy it really would have been to find him.”

His aunt told him that his dad died and he shared the news with his mother. He also reached out online to this news organization looking to connect with people who knew his father.

Those friends of his father are now waiting for Evan to decide what to do with his body.

The coroner’s office gave him the numbers of two cremation services, Evan said. But the $2,000 estimate is out of the price range for a guy who works in the receiving department of a boat manufacturer and has a 2-year-old son. Even $1,000 would be too much, he said.