From homelessness in Chattanooga to the grave

From homelessness in Chattanooga to the grave

October 9th, 2011 by Kate Belz in News

Brother Ron Fender leads the graveside service for a homeless woman, Iris Clemons, before she is buried at the Cofer Cemetery on Jenkins Road in East Brainerd.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.


Son's search for his long-lost father ends in Chattanooga


The number of indigent burials, including the homeless, in Hamilton County has climbed in the last three years. Curtis Ottinger, general manager of Heritage Funeral Home, attributes that to the crippled economy, which has forced more people into poverty, leaving them without means to pay for burial.

• 2009 -- 62

• 2010 -- 71

• 2011 (to date) -- 65

Source: Hamilton County

Homeless deaths in Chattanooga

• 2010 - 24

• 2011 (to date) - 19

Source: Chattanooga Community Kitchen

Ruth Cofer Cemetery

• 245 plots left at Ruth Cofer Cemetery

• $20,000 budgeted for cemetery upkeep

Source: Hamilton County

The day after Howard Glen Baugh died, Brother Ron Fender laid out the man's entire estate on a 4-foot-long table.

From a plastic bag he pulled out a bar of soap. A worn pair of size 111/2 Nikes. An extra-large red sport shirt. A battery-operated radio and headphones. A permit from the city to play his guitar on the streets for money. An empty Aquafina bottle crushed flat.

Fender doesn't wear plastic gloves or cringe as he unpacks Baugh's many medications and blood-stained khakis, gently laying them on the table. He pauses as he pulls out a little blue pack of bronze 80/20 Martin guitar strings.

"I kept Glen stocked with the guitar strings," Fender says. "I wouldn't give him money because I was afraid he'd spend it on booze. And he just laughed and said, 'You buy the guitar strings, and I'll take care of the vodka.'"

Baugh, 50, died in Parkridge Hospital on Aug. 10 of liver failure brought on by drinking. Fender visited the man on his deathbed, wiping away the sweat and blood.

The hospital gave Fender the plastic bag of Baugh's things because he was listed as Baugh's next of kin. No one had been able to reach the dying man's family.

Formally, Fender, a member of the Episcopal Brotherhood of St. Gregory, has the title of caseworker for the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, but he hates the title, preferring the term "friend."

Formally, Baugh was labeled "homeless" at his death. But as Fender unpacks Baugh's old blue backpack, that's not the label he uses to describe the man. Glen was a guitar player. A veteran.

A few minutes later, all of the bag's contents are spread across the table.

"That's Glen," Fender says as he leans back in his chair.

Fender won't throw any of it away, not even the crushed plastic bottle. He will pack everything back into the plastic bag and stow it in a storage area in the Community Kitchen's basement. It will join a growing collection of such bags until -- just maybe -- someone who cares enough will come claim it.

For those who have lost or severed every tie to their families, these bags are sometimes the last trace of their life on earth.

"Legally, I can throw these things away," Fender says. "But I just can't bear the thought of someone's life being reduced to recycling."

Each year, about two dozen homeless people die in Chattanooga. Baugh is one of 19 homeless to die so far in 2011. A handful died in hospitals. Others drew their last breaths on the streets. At least three were found dead in their tents.

Unless a family member is contacted and claims the body, the deceased will be laid to rest at Ruth Cofer Cemetery, Hamilton County's burial ground for the indigent off Jenkins Road.

Inmates from Silverdale Detention Center dig the graves and usually serve as pallbearers. Typically, services are sparse, often just a minister and a funeral director, which is required by law.

The county spends about $950 for each burial, covering the costs for a simple press-board coffin, the opening and the closing of the grave and a flat metal marker bearing the person's name, date of birth and date of death.

James Ponder, left, raises his hands as he and other mourners recite the Lord's Prayer with Brother Ron Fender at the graveside service for Iris Clemons at the Cofer Cemetery on Jenkins Rd. in East Brainerd.

James Ponder, left, raises his hands as he...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

Funeral homes provide everything else, including preparation of the body, and they absorb the costs, about $1,000. Nevertheless, Curtis Ottinger, general manager of Heritage Funeral Home, and others say they're committed to the service.

"Everyone deserves respect, no matter what choices they've made in life or how it all ended," Ottinger said. "That is someone's child. It could be someone's mother or father. It's someone who somebody loved. You don't know their story."

The little church bus heading to Iris Clemons' graveside funeral is full. None of the 48-year-old woman's relatives and no old friends will be participating in the Aug. 9 service, just 14 people she met in the last couple of years as she hung around the Chattanooga Community Kitchen. Like Baugh, she drank until her liver gave out.

As the bus rumbles up Interstate 75, several of Clemons' friends share stories of the electric woman with the fierce temper and the megawatt smile.

"A lot of us called her 'Mama,' and when she saw you she'd say, 'Hey, baby,'" says Rachel Westmoreland, who met Clemons at a shelter.

Other folks called her "New Orleans." Word was that she had moved from there to Chattanooga right after Hurricane Katrina killed several of her family members.

Clemons loved to eat ice, chomping on it like popcorn even in the wintertime. When it snowed on Christmas last year, she was running around like a kid, making snow angels.

The bus takes the exit at Jenkins Road and turns onto an unmarked road pocked with potholes and lined with kudzu-draped trees.

At the top of the hill, the cemetery suddenly opens up -- sprawling hills dotted with hundreds of small graves. Many of the markers at Cofer are overgrown with grass. Dozens of old silk bouquets have been tossed carelessly into the woods next to the burial ground.

Everyone files quietly out of the bus, making room for the six homeless men who have volunteered to be pallbearers. They carry the blue casket to a small wooden shelter. Someone places a bouquet of silk roses and irises on the lid.

Fender reads a passage and gives a short eulogy.

"Iris is not homeless today," he says. "Let us bid farewell to our sister, knowing she is in a place far more kind than earth, and a land far more rich than she ever knew here."

Sniffling and sobbing, the small group breaks into a ragged rendition of the hymn "Do Not Pass Me By" before the service wraps up.

Weeks later, Fender noted that he does not have a bag of Clemons' possessions as he did for Glen Baugh, because she died alone at the hospital.

"I have nothing to give a family member if they ever come looking for her. I have a photo -- that's it," he said.

As of early October, no one has stepped forward to claim Clemons formally as family. But three days after the burial, Fender got a phone call from a man who said he had just gotten out of prison and his mother, Iris, had told him to contact her at the Community Kitchen.

When Fender told him Iris Clemons had been buried, the man on the other end screamed and threw the phone down.

Tracing a deceased homeless person back to his roots is always an act of improvisation.

Depending on how the person died, police, hospice, the county medical examiner's office and the health department may each join in the search.

Brother Ron Fender looks through Howard Glen Baugh's belongings Thursday at the Community Kitchen.

Brother Ron Fender looks through Howard Glen Baugh's...

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

But the Community Kitchen usually steps in at some point.

"It's an informal relationship, but agencies contact us all the time," said Jens Christensen, assistant director of the Community Kitchen. "You go to the people who work with the homeless."

Ideally, Christensen said, caseworkers at the Community Kitchen will be able to locate the person's family, who then would bury the person according to his wishes. But often, case managers are listed as the next of kin.

The possessions the people leave behind don't usually offer many clues about their past. They are survival items, day-to-day necessities.

Right after Glen Baugh died, the Kitchen struggled for several days to track down any family. Baugh had told Fender he had a brother who lived in Illinois, but Fender couldn't find any listings. Just two days before Baugh was to be buried, Amedisys Hospice located the brother through the Aurora, Ill., police department.

Baugh's family requested that his body be cremated. The funeral home recently shipped Baugh's ashes to Illinois.

No one in the family has requested custody of Baugh's possessions.

Too many people have died on the streets and been buried alone, Fender said. That's why the Community Kitchen is holding the Conference on Death and Dying on Thursday and Friday.

"It's kind of blunt, but I think we need to be blunt for many of these people," he said. "Even if you're homeless, you need a backup plan for when you die."

He's inviting hospital workers, police officers, funeral home directors and other agencies to help explain to the homeless clients what may happen at the end of their lives.

During the conference, lawyers, doctors and public notaries will help participants create living wills, burial plans, do-not-resuscitate orders.

Staff members will help clients fill out contact information for their family members. All the forms will stay at the Homeless Healthcare Center.

"We want people to know what happens to them if they die on the street, or in the hospital," said Fender. "And we want them to make choices in how they face their own mortality."

James Ponders likes the idea.

He has been homeless for 10 years, attributing his life on the streets to a crack cocaine addiction. He was at Clemons' funeral, but doesn't know anything about her family.

"We don't talk about family and all that," Ponders said. "We come here for pain. We lost a husband. We're on drugs, alcohol. That's what brings the people to the shelters.

"Instead of getting any more pain, we try not to talk too much about ourselves," he said. "We don't know each other's pasts."