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Nobody Cared?
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Did Authorities Allow A Homeless Man To Freeze?

By James Donahue

The first harbinger of spring in our Northern Michigan community has been the shocking discovery of a body in an unheated ruin at the edge of town. The police chief said an examination of the remains suggests that the man died sometime in November after he was released from the local jail.

While details of this death remain sketchy, the information we know is that this person, a 44-year-old man “from downstate” which probably means from somewhere in Michigan’s lower peninsula, had been serving time in the county jail after being convicted of passing bad checks. He was released from jail in November, just as the first severe blasts of winter were sweeping the region.

The police chief was quoted by the local newspaper as saying that after leaving jail, the man “set up in the foundation of an old mining home . . . He was looking for a place to spend the night.”

While the chief also said the man had a history of alcoholism and health problems, and that an investigation was going on to rule out foul play, it seems obvious from the facts we have that the man was down on his luck and homeless. Once he was released from the only shelter he had, which was the county jail, he froze to death.

The man had been jailed for writing checks on an account that lacked insufficient funds. In other words, he had no money. Was he so desperate that he tried to get by on money gleaned in the only way he knew how to get it?

While we don’t have all of the facts, we must wonder if the county sheriff’s department wasn’t lax in releasing this man from the jail without assurance that he had shelter or friends waiting for him. Without help, anyone walking homeless into the kind of weather occurring along the bitter wind-swept coast of Lake Superior in November would not have much chance of staying alive for more than a few hours.

Indeed, as the number of homeless people grows across the nation, and more and more people find themselves out of work and struggling against debts and relentless efforts by banks, credit card companies, debt collectors and local governments to skin them for money they do not have, we are not surprised that police are beginning to find bodies as the snows of winter begin to melt away.

Is this a picture of things to come?

The poor and homeless have always been among us, but not in the great numbers that we see today. Over the years I have personally met homeless people who have invented somewhat ingenious ways to survive the cold of winter.

When working as a bureau reporter at South Haven, Michigan, in the 1960s, one homeless man who was well known to the police, always committed a crime in the late fall, when the gales of winter were about to strike. His was a rather intelligent scam. His crimes were always serious enough to warrant a few months of jail time. The old municipal judge and the city police understood his trickery and because they had a benevolent heart, they provided him warm shelter and meals in the city jail that lasted during the most severe weeks of winter.

Working another bureau job at Sandusky, Michigan, many years later, I discovered that we had yet another homeless man living in a hunting cab on the back of an old pickup truck parked at the rear of a used car lot just a block from my office. The operator of the car lot knew the man was there and made sure he had food and blankets. When the weather became severely cold, I think the man was allowed to stay in the office where he could get warm. This arrangement had been going on for years before I became aware of it. Most people in the community were totally unaware that the man was there.

When my wife and I lived in Sedona, Arizona, we became aware that the national forests surrounding that city were filled with tents and make-shift shelters for a lot of homeless people. Some of them actually held jobs clerking stores and pumping gas in the community. The cost of housing was so high and the wages so low in Sedona that the workers could not afford housing. So they lived in tents in the forest.

The problem with that arrangement was that there is a law prohibiting camping in national forests for longer than about a week at a time. Thus the forests were heavily patrolled by federal forest rangers who constantly harassed the homeless, issuing tickets with severe fines attached, for anyone leaving a tent in one place too long. Thus the tents were constantly being moved.

We befriended one homeless young man and allowed him to pitch his tent for a while in the yard of the cottage we were renting. We also provided meals and let him use our shower while he was with us.

There was a heart-felt spirit among citizens in the towns in those days and it helped people who found themselves in desperate situations to survive.