The homeless may die alone, but each year brings a salute

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 12, 2009 - 7:47 PM

For the past five years, John Petroskas has been keeper of the list. The list of the dead.

Some have been murdered in drug deals, others have jumped from bridges. Some were found frozen in alleys. One was run over by a snowplow as he tried to cross the street with his walker.

Some of the men and women just disappear, and Petroskas only finds out where they went at the end of the year, like now, when he calls the medical examiners as he tries to complete his list.

By next week, Petroskas, an outreach worker for Catholic Charities, will have his list of homeless and former homeless people who died this year. Almost all of them will be under 60 years old.

Bruce "Little John" Down choked on his food and died while in Detox. Jeffrey Scott O'Donnell was found in a frozen pond at Majestic Oaks Golf Course. Robert "Topper" Johnson died during a party at Redeemers Arms. He was 55.

For the 25th year, local homeless advocates will finish their list, then hold a march, memorial service and meal on Thursday. One last display of dignity for people who often struggled for it.

Last year's service honored a record 131 homeless and formerly homeless people, as well as homeless advocates, who had died in Minnesota in 2008. The final numbers in 2009 will likely be similar, said Petroskas, who has been a friend and counselor to far too many of them.

On any given night in Minnesota, at least 1,000 people live in the street. While the average life expectancy in America is 77 years, the life expectancy for homeless people in Minnesota this year was 48. Even those who finally find lodging die young: The average age of death this year for recently homeless people was 52.

Samuel Montgomery, 32, was hit by a car in June. Robert Lee "Pops" Johnson somehow made it to the age of 73. Michael Alan Palm, 41, was stabbed to death in his cab, where he lived. Mario "Paco" Highler, 35, was murdered in Duluth in October. "Unknown child" died of abuse at the Drake Hotel.

The memorial was begun in 1984 after Eric, a guest of Simpson's men's shelter in south Minneapolis, was beaten to death on some railroad tracks. Simpson United Methodist Church's pastor, staff and others gathered to celebrate Eric's life. Simpson's and the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless decided to make it an annual event. And the list began.

"The impression is that most homeless people die of exposure, but that's not true," said Petroskas. "They die of the same things everyone does, just a lot sooner. There are also quite a few violent deaths, due to the lifestyle they lead, and a lot of suicides, since so many suffer from mental illness."

Russell Lamp, 60, a bell ringer for Harbor Lights, died last Feb. Brett Asfeld, 46, was found in a boxcar in January. Jahaia Parks, 33, was hit by a train. An unknown man was shot to death and left in a van in northeast Minneapolis.

Death on a snowy street

Petroskas will especially miss Rural Bonner, a Vietnam vet who couldn't make it across the street with his walker before the light changed. A snowplow driver didn't see him, and Bonner died just shy of his one-year anniversary of finally finding a place to live.

"He was reflective, intelligent and funny," said Petroskas. "He suffered a broken back and became homeless. We had a beautiful memorial. He was a cantankerous fellow with a filthy mouth, but everybody knew him."

Petroskas also will miss Emerson Parnacher, a Choctaw Indian from Oklahoma, Korean War vet and English teacher who grew up in a boardinghouse and became a chronic alcoholic. "A case of cultural dislocation, separated from his family and society," said Petroskas.

One woman was found in the Mississippi River after jumping from a bridge. A man was found hanged in a vacant lot in Duluth. "Hippie Al," age unknown, was found dead in Duluth.

Some homeless people die surrounded by family and friends who couldn't help them solve drug or mental health problems, but many are buried by social workers and fellow homeless travelers. At the end, "You just hope they made some peace with their lives and the disappointment they had in where they ended up," said Petroskas.

Though making his list is a sad occasion at the end of each year, Petroskas said it also helps him remember people who have had an impact on his life, for better or worse.

"These people made me who I am," said Petroskas. "I feel privileged to have known most of them, and welcomed into their world."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

  • THURSDAY'S EVENT starts at 5 p.m.

    The march and vigil in remembrance of Minnesota's homeless will begin at 5 p.m. in front of the Hennepin County Government Center, with a service at 6:30 p.m. at Simpson United Methodist Church, 2740 1st Av. S., Minneapolis. A community meal will follow in the church basement.

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