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.
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.
Jeffrey Rivers was a man whom Bowery staff had known for about five months. Rivers had been sleeping around the corner from the mission and was found dead in October. Storbakken suspects foul play, but that’s only his speculation—the police, in any event, didn’t pursue that possibility. Storbakken requested an autopsy but hasn’t received the results. He arrived on the scene as the police and medics were removing the body, and told them he knew Rivers. The police officers said Rivers had no identification. They left behind all of Rivers’ possessions, which Storbakken brought back to the Bowery chapel.
When he spread them out, he found Rivers’ wallet as well as letters that Rivers had written to his children. Storbakken went to identify Rivers at the morgue, then arranged a memorial service for him in the Bowery chapel. Rivers was buried on Hart Island. Storbakken asked to visit the grave; the city denied his request. Under the current policies, Storbakken should have been able to visit the island.
More importantly, Storbakken wanted to find the children Rivers wrote notes to—he has tried Facebook, but “Rivers” is a common name, and he didn’t have much else to go on. At Rivers’ memorial service, Storbakken urged the men in the chapel to call home. “Maybe your parents or children will be angry at you, maybe they have every right … but you need to do that work,” he told them. After the service several men asked him to help relocate their children. On Storbakken’s desk next to Rivers’ death certificate was a small handwritten note from one of the men, with all the information he had about his child he was trying to find. Storbakken sighed as he looked at the paper: The child’s name was also quite common, making his search difficult.
The Bowery handles each death of homeless men in the community as it comes, and uses whatever resources the mission can find for burials. On a shelf behind Storbakken’s desk sat an American flag folded in a triangle, which had covered the coffin of Andre Griffin. Griffin had been a fixture at the Bowery since the 1980s, but he had a drinking problem. In March, at age 68, he drank himself into a coma; a day later he died in the hospital. Griffin had no family that the Bowery staff knew of, so Storbakken claimed his body. A ministry partner who also ran a funeral home helped with a coffin and burial. Griffin was an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, so he was granted a plot in a veterans’ cemetery on Long Island. The Army Honor Guard played taps at his burial. On his headstone the mission had inscribed, “A friend of the Bowery Mission. Luke 6:20.” The verse reads, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
THESE MEN CAN SLIP PAST society’s notice so easily. Reggie Stutzman, now a pastor of Real Life Church in the Bronx, was the chaplain at the Bowery for a decade preceding Storbakken. He recalled burying six men during his tenure at the mission, including Don Howard. Howard had been coming to the Bowery for meals and showers for years, and Stutzman knew him for about five years. One day Howard went missing. Stutzman searched all of Howard’s usual hangout spots, with no sign of the man.
“How do you find a homeless guy with no ID?” Stutzman said. Eventually Stutzman found him—in the city morgue. Howard had died in a subway car, surrounded by a pile of empty beer cans. Stutzman claimed Howard’s body because no one else had. “There are no legalities because it’s better for everybody if you take care of the individual,” he said.
Stutzman knew someone at Catholic Charities, and the organization was able to give Howard a burial plot it owned in a private cemetery in Queens. A private burial plot in New York City is quite a luxury, and that was an unusual situation. Today, a Catholic Charities’ spokesperson had no idea the group even had burial plots to give out. “It’s not a regular thing,” said Pierette Imbriano, spokesperson for Catholic Charities New York.
“I don’t know how it worked, but it worked,” said Stutzman.
Stutzman held a funeral for Howard at the mission; several homeless men served as pallbearers. Stutzman gave a eulogy, then they drove out to the cemetery, read Psalm 23, and buried Howard.
“Let’s show these men—the rest of the two, three hundred men—that life is precious,” Stutzman said about the purpose of the funerals. “Here’s one of your own, and we’re going to love you to the very end. We’re going to show you dignity to the very end.”