Providing a Decent Last Stop for Homeless Veterans
In the last years of his life, Garry Shelton Hammonds was mostly alone: in his thoughts, on the streets of his hometown of Wingate, and in his struggle with whatever haunted him from his Army service in Korea during the Vietnam War.
Like many other homeless veterans, Hammonds finally died alone, on a Tuesday afternoon last month following a stroke.
Erin Amelung didn’t want Hammonds’ body to leave this world that way, too.
In North Carolina, when no family member can – or will – claim the body of an indigent loved one, the county will have a funeral home cremate the remains and dispose of the ashes. There is no funeral, no burial, no gravesite and no marker at which to lay flowers.
“We don’t want that for our veterans,” said Amelung, who arranges military rites for veterans who die homeless or penniless. She does the work as a charity of McEwen Funeral Home in Mint Hill, near Charlotte. McEwen, owned by industry giant Dignity Memorial of Houston, is the only funeral home in North Carolina that does this work.
A veteran’s daughter herself, Amelung wanted for Hammonds what every veteran who served honorably is entitled to have.
“A proper burial,” she said. “He deserves that. They all do.”
The government promises to provide any veteran who was honorably discharged a two-man honor guard, a cemetery plot and a marker; it doesn’t supply a casket or pay for cremation or an urn for ashes. But many vets and their families don’t know these benefits are available, or maybe they prefer burial in a family plot or a church cemetery without the added fanfare.
In any case, the government only provides the benefits if they are requested by a family member or a funeral home.
Veterans who have spent years on the street or in and out of shelters may never tell anyone of their military past, let alone ask the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to make sure they get a formal sendoff when they die. And once they’re gone, there may be no one who knows – or cares – to ask on the veteran’s behalf.
1,138 homeless veterans
Across the country, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates there are more than 62,600 homeless vets on any given night, but about twice that many experience homelessness throughout the year. While only 7 percent of the general population can claim veteran status, 10 percent of the adult homeless population are veterans, according to HUD, which conducts a point-in-time count of the homeless each January.
In North Carolina, HUD counted 1,138 homeless veterans this year.
No one keeps track of how many homeless veterans die each year or what happens to their remains, which varies from place to place.
“When we’re dealing with an unclaimed body, frankly, it’s outside our statutory responsibility to try to ascertain whether it’s an unclaimed veteran’s body,” said Bob Sorrels, deputy director of Wake County Human Services. “That just takes more time.”
The grim scenario may go something like this: Emergency dispatchers get a call that someone is lying dead, sick or injured on a roadside. An ambulance takes the person to the hospital, where he or she is declared dead. The body is sent to storage – perhaps at a local morgue, or at a funeral home that performs the duty under contract – while a social services agency tries to locate a relative.
Maybe the deceased has one sister, but she hasn’t talked to her sibling in years. She says she can’t afford to pay for funeral or burial expenses, and there is no other family.
In Wake County, that means the remains would be sent to Poole Funeral Service and Crematory, which would cremate the body and dispose of the ashes.
If the person has a VA card in a pocket or if the sister mentions that the sibling served in the military, the county will refer her to its veterans services officer, who can put her in touch with the VA.
There, a social worker can research the veteran’s military history. If they can verify the person served and was honorably discharged, he or she is eligible for burial benefits. But in most places, the sister still will have to come up with the money for cremation or embalming and a casket, so there’s something to take to the cemetery. If the county pays for cremation, the ashes generally are not returned.
‘They bring the ashes’
At one time, veterans, including the homeless and the indigent, could be buried at one of four national cemeteries in North Carolina: Wilmington, Greensboro, Raleigh and Salisbury. All but one – Salisbury – are now full. In the 1990s, the state opened three veterans cemeteries to serve that need.
“We get a few homeless veterans every year,” said Eli Panee, who oversees the state veterans cemeteries located in Jacksonville, Spring Lake and Black Mountain. The cemetery can’t arrange for a burial service, but sometimes, Panee said, a funeral home will line up an honor guard and maybe a chaplain to say a few words.
Other times, he said, “They just bring the ashes to us, and we just go ahead and bury them. It’s very sad.”
Sad, Amelung said, is when a veteran has relatives who could afford a funeral and burial but refuse to claim the body or even attend the service she arranges.
Amelung has arranged a lot of burial services for veterans at which she and another McEwen employee were the only ones present, except for the volunteers performing the rites.
“When we get a veteran, if I can find a family member, one of the things I always ask them is, ‘When was the last time you talked to him?’
“And they’ll say, ‘I don’t know, a year ago? Two years, five years, 10?’”