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Everlasting shelter

Finding final resting places for the homeless often requires help, compassion from strangers
Thursday, June 3, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:54 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

After serving 22 years in Moberly Correctional Center for theft, Matthew Hobbs came to the St. Francis House in Columbia to live out the final six weeks of his life in 1990. He was dying of brain cancer, and the prison asked that he be medically cared for. But Hobbs was estranged from his family and technically homeless.

Hobbs had been in solitary confinement for the last nine years of his sentence. He required about $200 a month to pay for morphine to ease his pain, and he weighed about 106 pounds.

Hobbs was referred to Lana Jacobs at St. Francis House. Jacobs, one of the founders of the privately funded Catholic homeless shelter, learned Hobbs was from the same rough St. Louis neighborhood where she grew up. They had lived in the same housing projects, had siblings in the same kindergarten class, and Hobbs had been in juvenile lock-up with Jacobs’ brothers.

In his final few weeks of life, Hobbs told Jacobs he wanted to see his family, something he hadn’t done in about 20 years. Jacobs arranged for Hobbs’ siblings and some of their children to visit Hobbs about five times during the six weeks preceding his death. The final visit occurred the week before Hobbs died.

Although Hobbs died homeless, he did not die alone.

Neither the Columbia Police Department nor the Boone County Medial Examiner’s office tracks the number of homeless people who die in Columbia each year. Police Sgt. John White said police investigate if they find a homeless person dead. The body usually is taken to the medical examiner, while police try to find the next of kin. If none is found, the body is cremated and becomes the county’s responsibility.

Many homeless people either die without telling anyone how they’d like to be buried or have no one to follow through on their last wishes. Many others, Jacobs said, are afflicted with mental illness and unable to comprehend their mortality.

For Hobbs, however, Jacobs arranged for a Roman Catholic Mass with his family and for Hobbs to be buried in a donated plot a few feet from his grandmother in St. Louis’ Resurrection Cemetery.

White said one thing that makes things a bit easier for police is that normally they’ve had previous contact with homeless peopleand often have some background information that makes it easier to find parents or other family.

“We typically do a pretty good job of locating somebody,” White said.

Police also look to those involved with the local homeless community as a resource for finding family. Jacobs said she has frequently been one of those resources.

“Very often, the police will call us if they’ve found an unclaimed body or they find somebody they don’t know who it is, ” Jacobs said. “They’ll call us, and sometimes we go identify the body for them. Sometimes they know who the body is, and they just need a confirmation, and so you just go in and say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”

When someone staying at St. Francis House dies, Jacobs often takes it upon herself to find the next of kin.

“It’s part of our Christian responsibility to bury the dead because God created all of us,” she said. “We are a pacifist Christian organization. We believe that all life is sacred, womb to tomb, from conception until death. It’s an honor and a privilege to bury God’s child, even if he’s been a pain in the ass, even if they’re the most difficult alcoholic on the street.”

Normally, about 20 men stay at St. Francis House, while five to eight women stay at the nearby Z. Lois Bryant House. While those who can work are encouraged to do so, Jacobs said about 75 percent of the homeless she shelters suffer from chronic mental illness and are welcome to stay as long as they need to, whether it’s a day, a week or — in the case of one resident — 20 years.

Jacobs has had long relationships with some residents and searches for clues to relatives in case of death. While the homeless stay with her, she watches for mail bearing family names.

“(Privacy has) never been an issue, you know, because sometimes we end up having to read the mail to them,” Jacobs said. “There are a lot of folks here who can’t read.”

Jacobs estimates that in the 21 years St. Francis House has been operating, she has either helped to bury or buried around 40 homeless men and women.

“One of the things we’ve done over the years is, if we find family, we try to make arrangements with the family,” she said. “Sometimes, families don’t want to do that because there have been estrangements because of mental illness or drug addiction or alcoholism. So, sometimes we end up burying them ourselves.”

If the family chooses to be involved, Jacobs said they decide whether the body should be buried or cremated. If it’s left to her, she chooses cremation because it’s less expensive and requires less space. She said burials, complete with tombstones and coffins, can cost thousands of dollars.

St. Francis House has six donated burial plots at Columbia Cemetery, but Jacobs said they normally cremate the bodies and bury the ashes in a memory garden at either Calvary Episcopal Church or at St. Francis House.

Jacobs said the ashes of seven people are buried in the 8-by-8-foot garden at the shelter. Next to them, Jacobs also has buried the ashes of a favorite dog, Wolfe. Overflowing with greenery, the garden features a 4-foot statue of the Virgin Mary and rose bushes that span its width. There are no markers for the deceased, but plants memorialize them. Jacobs sometimes buries people next to others they were close to.

“When I go, I want my ashes to be buried right at the foot of the Virgin Mary,” she said.

Jacobs puts the ashes in a linen bag and embroiders the person’s name on it. “It’s very natural, and this way they can go back to the earth,” she said.

Parker Funeral Service & Crematory performs the cremations, often for free. Because Jacobs is not a family member, the release of the remains can be problematic. If there is no next of kin, the medical examiner will release the body to friends who step forward and are willing to assume responsibility. Boone County death investigator Dori Burke said Jacobs is often that person.

“Lana Jacobs will most often take the ashes and bury them,” Burke said. “If not, we keep the ashes here. We don’t throw them away.”

Burke could recall only two cases in which ashes remain unclaimed. They’re kept in urns in a closet at the medical examiner’s office, where Burke said they will remain forever.

Jacobs said she considers it a blessing that she can help the homeless find a final resting place and points to Hobbs as an example of what a little support can do. She remembered feeling a sense of tranquility the night Hobbs died.

“We were sitting on the porch, and there was this incredible peace that Matt didn’t die in prison,” she said. “Matt found his way somehow to feel that his life meant something. He was only 49 years old.”


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