[Hpn] Final dignity a must read if you are interested in helping end homelessness.
Sun, 4 Nov 2001 07:13:49 -0500
Nov. 4, 2001.
When no one else mourns, city must bury the forgotten
CITY HALL BUREAU
STEVE RUSSELL/TORONTO STAR
Social worker Walter Brierley pays his final respects at
the funeral of Joey O'Hare who died after years on Toronto streets.
LONELY END: A cross of ashes and a flower sit on the
casket of Joey O'Hare, below, who died after years on Toronto streets.
In life - and death - Joey O'Hare was alone.
Tortured by his past, scourged by alcohol and years of living
Toronto's streets, 41-year-old O'Hare staggered up to the side of a
warehouse after a day of boozing a couple of weeks ago, sat down and died.
With no identification revealing his address or next of kin,
body ended up at the regional coroner's morgue. He'd still be there if a
worker at the Seaton House men's hostel hadn't started looking for him.
Seaton House arranged a funeral for O'Hare, which was attended
by 18 people, including hostel residents, staffers and three others who
him. If he has any family, they weren't at the service, despite the efforts
of police to track them down.
Nobody at the funeral was close to him. Only a few could
legitimately be described as mourners. There was barely a damp eye in the
O'Hare is one of about 100 people in Toronto - almost all of
them homeless - whose bodies go unclaimed each year. Unwanted, unmourned
unloved, their remains are interred by the city because nobody else will do
As unlikely as it seems, O'Hare was among the lucky ones.
Because he'd been living at the Seaton House annex for alcoholic men,
somebody noticed he had disappeared and checked to see where he was.
But without the involvement of a social service agency or
hostel, unclaimed cadavers are iced at the coroner's morgue on Grenville
until it's apparent no family will be found.
"We've had situations where an unclaimed body or an
person has been here for months," said Dr. William Lucas, supervising
coroner for the Toronto region.
The morgue can hold about 100 bodies, either in cold storage
the short term or a deep freeze for longer stays, said Lucas. When police
need plenty of time to find next of kin, the body is put into the freezer
until it's apparent family can't be found. Then the city is called to
Last year, Toronto paid $2.6 million to hold 1,074 funerals for
people who left no means to cover the cost, not including burial or
cremation costs. The city recovered 80 per cent from the province, which
pays most of the costs of funerals for people on welfare.
It is not a measure of the city's generosity; the provincial
Anatomy Act and Public Hospitals Act require municipalities to bury
persons and anybody else who cannot pay for a funeral, or even burial or
If O'Hare's body hadn't been claimed by Seaton House, it would
have been buried without a funeral or final rites from a member of the
clergy, said Ted Lis, a director of social services with the city.
"There is a funeral only if family or an agency asks for it,"
said Lis, adding that unclaimed bodies are buried instead of cremated in
case a family member turns up later and wants to move the remains or visit
The winding road of O'Hare's life pointed to an early, untimely
end. He lived on the streets of downtown Toronto and hung out in the St.
Clair Ave.-Yonge St. area, drinking sherry when he had money and hard
stuff - Lysol, rubbing alcohol and cooking wine - when he didn't.
Street life and alcoholism exacted a brutal toll. He suffered
from serious stomach ailments, lost a finger to frostbite and had problems
with his feet, which had been frostbitten many times. He'd have seizures,
but doctors couldn't pinpoint the cause, and was in a body cast for months
few years ago after suffering a broken back. He removed the cast himself -
long before it should have come off.
"He'd get into altercations with the police," said Walter
Brierley, a social worker with Comprehensive Rehabilitation and Mental
Health Services. "He had trouble with authority when he was drinking.''
But O'Hare's fierce streak of self-reliance wouldn't allow him
to easily accept help, at least not until he became too sick to say no. It
was only after he'd been ordered by a judge to reside at Seaton House as
part of the terms of probation that he moved inside.
"Joey really enjoyed living outdoors and being independent,"
said Karen Smith, the Seaton House worker who found him at the morgue. "He
liked not having any rules or obligations.''
When he was sober, Brierley says, O'Hare was a "warm, gentle,
soft-spoken guy. He liked to grab a newspaper, get himself a bottle, sit
down on a bench outside and slowly get inebriated. That was his idea of a
O'Hare's social workers and a friend say he was tormented by
memories of the verbal and physical abuse heaped on him as a boy by his
mother, a former ballroom dancer who suffered a career-ending back injury.
Allan Smith, one of the few at O'Hare's funeral who was
acquainted with him from outside the hostel, says he met O'Hare about five
years ago and became casual friends with him.
"He was standing in the rain, soaking wet, asking for change,"
recalled Smith. "We just started talking and became friends. He was a very
special person. I tried to stay in touch with him once a week or so.''
O'Hare was very generous, Smith said. "He'd give you the shirt
off his back. I know, because he gave me two T-shirts that were donated to
Over the past 18 months or so, social workers said O'Hare had
begun to feel more at ease with people, which they attributed to the
increased socialization of living with others in the Seaton House annex.
he would still wander away, sometimes for days at a time, said Karen Smith,
his Seaton House social worker.
She said he wasn't in the annex on the morning of Oct. 18 or
next day, but she wasn't worried because it wasn't unusual behaviour. When
she came back to work the following Monday and he still hadn't returned,
knew something was wrong.
She called hospitals and detention centres across the city, but
there was no record of him. "My last call was to the coroner. I try to
that, but it was cold outside and I knew he was fairly weak, so I called
there and, sure enough, they had a match for me.''
His body was found beside a bench on the south side of the
building on Jarvis St., north of Dundas St., and just a couple of blocks
from Seaton House. Police investigators obtained video from a camera
on the south side of the building to see if there was evidence of foul
"The detective told me the film showed him sitting down in a
place where the camera could see, and finally he just slouched over.
Apparently, he just sat down and died,'' said Karen Smith.
O'Hare was given an open-casket funeral with four hours of
viewing before the service. "To us, it's important that there is some
dignity to the very last thing in a person's life," she said.
At the rates paid by the city, "we sure don't make any money on
it, but if you're in this business, it's a service you provide to the
community," said Trevor Charbonneau, a funeral director at the
Rosar-Morrison funeral home on Sherbourne St., which handled O'Hare's
service and burial.
He was buried in a particle-board casket covered in blue
standard issue for city-paid funerals, said Charbonneau, adding that city
policy prevents it from being upgraded, even if a family could pay to do
Provincial rules also state no more than $1,000 can be paid for a plot in
which an indigent person is buried. In the Greater Toronto area, only two
cemeteries - Holy Cross for Catholics and Beechwood for others - will
indigent bodies, said Charbonneau.
At Beechwood, where O'Hare was buried, plots for homeless
are mixed in among the paying customers, but there are no headstones.
The grave is marked by a small "cornerstone" with no name or
other engraving - a tribute entirely in keeping with the anonymity of