PHOENIX — Almost every day, the lady with the chestnut hair and slight smile stopped by the tire shop to ask for a drink. Jose Perez would take a break from his work to offer a cup of water or whatever he had on hand.
She was 50ish, he guessed, and painfully skinny. But friendly, too. She once mentioned having kids, though Perez had no idea how many or where. She lived with a man under a plywood shelter on the other side of a chain-link fence behind the store.
Perez last saw her a week ago Sunday, when the mercury hit 116 degrees. She lay on a mound of dirt outside the shelter as paramedics worked to revive her. The skinny lady with the smile died right before his eyes. “Scary,” the 20-year-old says.
Perez never even knew her name.
In the span of a week, in the throes of a record heat wave, this transient and 13 others perished on the streets of metropolitan Phoenix. They lived in obscurity, and many of them died the same way — anonymous, ignored, alone. Their bodies were found crumpled on sidewalks near strip malls or in the shadow of downtown skyscrapers. Some were discovered only after strangers stumbled upon them and dialed 911.
Now, as Salvation Army volunteers pass out water and social workers coax vagabonds into shelters, the city is grappling with another challenge: How to put a name to the nameless, find their families and bury the dead.
“Hopefully he gets a nice funeral, he gets to rest in peace,” Rosalie Munoz says.
She stands in the parking lot behind America Mufflers a few miles west of downtown, sipping a cold drink through a straw. She points to the wall where, on Monday afternoon, she and her boyfriend found a man known on the streets as Martin.
They’d seen him around, pushing a grocery cart and distributing cards explaining that he was a deaf-mute in need of spare change. On Monday, however, Martin was slumped against the wall under the scalding sun. His cart — and his pulse — were gone.
Munoz surmises that anyone wandering by probably thought Martin had passed out. “He’s a drunk,” she explains, matter-of-factly.
Her boyfriend, Jason Delgado, wonders. “What if the first person who walked by had done something or stopped to say, ‘Hey, dude, you all right?’ Maybe he’d still be around,” he says.
In a police statement, Martin was simply a “homeless male found dead rear parking lot of store.” The two who found him, who knew little more than his name and disabilities and demons, knew much more than most.
Two identified so far
Phoenix police so far have identified two of the dead: 47-year-old Ruben Lopez, discovered in a grassy patch near the vehicle where he lived, and 52-year-old Richard Pacheco, who died shortly after fire officials responded to a report of a man vomiting along a road. Both were found on Sunday; authorities had no other information about them.
All the bodies are being examined by the county medical examiner’s office, which will perform autopsies to determine cause of death and obtain fingerprints.
It is only the first step in a lengthy process.
“If things go as planned, bingo — there that person is,” says Phoenix Detective Tony Morales. “That’s not always the case. The big problem is finding any next of kin. They’re homeless, they come from who knows where. Most of them don’t carry a phone book in their pockets saying if something happens to them call ‘Dad’ at this number. It takes a lot of legwork.”
“Sometimes,” he adds, “we strike out.”
When that happens, funeral homes take possession of the dead and place notices in the obituary section of the local newspaper in hope that someone might recognize a name and call. It’s easy enough to spot the abbreviated bulletins, tucked in between heartfelt remembrances and photographs of loved ones.
“Christopher Daniel Blanco, 43. ... Any family please contact Harper Funeral Home.”
“Alvin Duncan, 54. ... No services scheduled at this time.”
Blanco and Duncan were homeless men who both passed away in June; the causes of their death are still undetermined. After efforts to locate any relatives were fruitless, the cases were referred this month to Maricopa County’s Indigent Burial Program.
About 350 people are buried or cremated at county expense each year, including elderly folks with no other family, abandoned babies and the homeless, program director Shari Tomlinson says.
Most cases land on the desk of burial coordinator Ramona Loza. This, she says, is “the end of the line,” the last chance to unite the dead and their loved ones. “We make one more attempt,” she says.
Sometimes, luck is on her side. Loza ran Blanco’s name through an Internet database and came up with an old address and a phone number. She dialed and found Blanco’s stepfather. His mother has since been in touch with the funeral home and is handling burial arrangements.
Sometimes, Loza finds relatives who want nothing to do with the decedent’s arrangements.
Sometimes, she can’t find a soul.
Loza’s database turned up nothing about Duncan. Discovering he was American Indian, Loza contacted a local Indian hospital to check, unsuccessfully, for records.
'Somebody’s sons, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters'
Thursday morning, as city police worked to identify the latest homeless to die on their streets, Duncan was buried at the county cemetery west of town. A nun and a few volunteers from a homeless shelter whispered prayers. Then a prison chain gang, which digs the graves, broke into “Amazing Grace” as his casket was lowered.
There are no lush, manicured lawns or elaborate headstones or fresh flowers at the cemetery. Most days there aren’t any visitors, either. For now, a tiny, plastic stake marks the spot where Duncan rests. Eventually, a metal disc with his name and date of death will be placed atop the grave. The discs are sprinkled throughout the cemetery, sprouting from hard, cracked dirt.
A few of them have no names at all, reading simply “Male, Unk” — unknown.
Loza hopes for a different outcome for the homeless who died this past week. So do other transients, who know all too well that living alone on the streets shouldn’t mean dying alone.
“They’re people — somebody’s sons, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters,” a man named Izzy says as he reclines under a shade tree at the downtown city library. A damp washcloth sits on his forehead, a bottle of water by his side.
“They’re homeless,” Izzy says, “but they’re still people.”
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