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LONG HISTORY: Gravediggers prepare an unmarked mass burial on Hart Island.
Jacob A. Riis Picture History/Newscom
LONG HISTORY: Gravediggers prepare an unmarked mass burial on Hart Island.

No headstone of his own

Homelessness | What happens to a homeless person when he dies on the street?

Issue: "Getting paid not aid," Feb. 22, 2014

NEW YORK—One fall evening I came up out of a subway station in Manhattan, and there on a park bench was a deceased homeless man, his prostrate body covered with a white sheet. A couple of police officers stood nearby, likely waiting for the city’s medical examiner to show up and take the body. Some passersby glanced at the dead body, but most continued on their way, caught in their own affairs as New Yorkers often are.

Across the United States, homelessness has been declining the last few years, according to a study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But homelessness has risen significantly in states like New York (with a record 50,000 in New York City) and California. In the recent arctic blast that hit most of the country, authorities have confirmed the deaths of a number of homeless from exposure—in Chicago, Philadelphia, Jersey City, and even Atlanta.

Between 800 and 1,000 adults die in New York City every year who have no one to claim their bodies, or whose families are unable to bury them, according to the city’s Department of Corrections, which helps handle the bodies. Ministries to the homeless do what they can to honor the dead—but their resources are usually focused on the living.

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When a homeless person dies, the city’s medical examiner holds the body at the morgue for two weeks; the city tries to identify the body through fingerprints and photographs. If no one claims the body, the city buries the individual in its potter’s field on Hart Island, a small island in the Long Island Sound near the Bronx. The body goes in a wooden box, and the medical examiner’s staff load it with other bodies onto a truck, which goes on a ferry to Hart Island. Hart is closely guarded, surrounded with no trespassing signs, because inmates dig the trenches for the bodies. The inmates bury the caskets in stacks in long trenches. There are no headstones, but the city does keep a record of where bodies are buried, so if relatives come later to claim someone, they can exhume the body. Because inmates work on the island, the city has often refused to allow visitors. The city denied me a visit, citing security concerns.

Homeless advocacy groups have pressed the city to open the island. The New York City Department of Correction, which manages the island, has until recently only allowed family members of the dead to visit the island. Visitors travel with the medical examiner’s ferry to the island, where they can visit a gazebo that serves as the designated “reflection” area. For now visitors can’t visit the graves, with the city citing security concerns and the lack of amenities like restrooms. 

Recently, the city changed its visitation policy to allow anyone to visit, subject to the Department of Correction’s approval. The city’s openness to visits is inconsistent—it has denied not just reporters but at least one chaplain whose parishioner was buried on the island. For the homeless and indigent, a visitable grave might be the only point of connection estranged family and friends can have.

A city councilwoman plans to introduce a bill to turn management of the island over to the city’s Parks Department, saying the island should be more open to those trying to visit loved ones. The Parks Department declined that responsibility in the past, according to the New York Daily News, because Hart is an active burial ground.

The Department of Correction did not answer my numerous questions about its management of the island, but issued a statement. “Burying the indigent and unknown is among the most sensitive and solemn responsibilities that city government undertakes,” a department spokesman said. “The Department of Correction is proud to participate in providing this important service and is committed to do so with dignity and respect.”

HART ISLAND, THE CITY'S POTTER'S FIELD since 1869, holds around 1 million bodies according to public records, including stillborn babies from local hospitals. As medieval as the mass graves sound, a burial in a casket is a dignity that not all cities the size of New York confer on the indigent. Los Angeles cremates the unclaimed dead.

“The city, they do what they can do,” said Jason Storbakken, the director of compassionate care at the Bowery Mission, which has ministered to the homeless in the city since 1879. “But the government has a management mentality. There is no compassion. They’re managing it.”

Storbakken arrived at work at the Bowery on a Friday morning, a cup of coffee in hand, and greeted the men filtering into the mission. The mission’s historic building on Bowery hosts a men’s recovery center with 80 beds, meals, classes, showers, a clothes closet, and a chapel; on cold nights, staff members set up mats in the chapel for the homeless who flee the street. Storbakken climbed the steep staircase to his office just above the chapel, and picked up a newly arrived slip of paper on his desk: a death certificate.

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