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The Disappeared Ones

Primavera remembers the men and women who died homeless in 2009

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"John Doe" and "Jane Doe" are the generic names you see used as examples at the top of various forms.

Imagine if the name "John Doe" were on your birth certificate.

The Pima County Public Fiduciary deals with real-life John and Jane Does every day. Those are the names they assign to the bodies of people who die homeless with no identification and no known relatives.

The Pima County Health Department does not keep statistics on the number of local people who die homeless. However, Peggy Hutchison, the executive director of the nonprofit Primavera Foundation, which helps the poor and homeless, assures the Tucson Weekly that the number is high.

Too high. She calls them los desaparecidos. The disappeared ones.

The foundation has led an annual memorial service for these people to mark Homeless Persons' Memorial Day, for the last dozen or so years, as part of a national effort to honor those who have died without the dignity of a roof over their heads.

Hutchison says that the memorial is meant to send a message to the deceased John Does, and to all of Tucson's homeless community: "No longer are you disappeared."

"Some homeless people are children; some are veterans who fought for this nation," says Hutchison. "All are brothers, sisters, nephews, fathers, friends. We need to acknowledge that their lives have meaning."

This year, the memorial will be held from 4 to 5:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 18, at the west end of Evergreen Cemetery, 3015 N. Oracle Road, on the county plot. The service will include music, an interfaith service and speeches from elected officials, as well as remarks by family members and acquaintances of the homeless.

Joy Wilcox, the advocacy coordinator at Primavera, says that they will bring photos and read off as many names as they can to personalize the memorial.

Finding these names is not an easy task. At the 2008 memorial service, Primavera honored 30 people with both names and family, 53 people with names but no family, and 45 John/Jane Does. Those numbers didn't include homeless Tucsonans who "slip through the cracks," Wilcox says.

Hutchison says they try to learn identities by showing photos to homeless-program participants. Traditionally, though, the responsibility of identifying the dead falls on the county. This is why Primavera and other organizations like Derechos Humanos work with the Public Fiduciary to investigate and piece together histories of the deceased.

Brenda Varela, the indigent burial specialist at the Public Fiduciary, says that immigrants from Mexico can be the most difficult people to identify. She sometimes receives calls from families in Mexico, concerned about relatives who have gone missing. She will try to match up descriptions with the John Does.

"We go through the Superior Court, go through Lexis-Nexis, property records," says Varela. "It is definitely frustrating and really sad, because you see 'unknown,' 'unknown,' 'unknown' everywhere."

She says that her office can't devote a huge chunk of time to investigations, because their first responsibility is to help the survivors of people who are identified, to see if they qualify for a county-funded burial.

Once the Public Fiduciary has exhausted all efforts to identify the unidentified, the nameless bodies go straight to the cemetery.

The John and Jane Does are automatically cremated, Varela says.

"There's no purpose of burying (the unidentified bodies) because it's more costly," she says.

The most logical way to help solve this bureaucratic mess is to help people who are alive get back on their feet. Hutchison says that reducing the homeless problem will require a combined national, regional and local effort that focuses on an investment in infrastructure.

"The state is cutting dollars for people who are disabled, for health insurance and for education, when these are all things that could prevent homelessness," says Hutchison.

Hutchison says that Tucson has the highest poverty rate in the state, and the Tucson Weekly reported back in September that Tucson's poverty rates are almost 50 percent higher than the national average. (See "Poorer Than Average," Currents, Sept. 24.)

Hutchison says that the Southwest as a whole has a big homeless population compared to other regions, largely because of migrants and retirees who can't support themselves.

"People often come here because they think it's warmer, and they have a better chance of surviving," she says.

While they wait for the various levels of government to get their acts together, the folks at Primavera say they are doing what they can to get homeless individuals on the road to recovery.

Primavera encourages people to bring donations in the form of warm clothes to the memorial event, which is open to the public. Wilcox says that they have consistently had more than 100 people show up each year. One woman attended last year after her husband had passed away.

"She brought boxes of her husband's clothes to give and cried, thanking us," says Wilcox. "It was part of her grieving process."

Wilcox invites everyone to shed a tear for the invisible Tucsonans who would otherwise have nobody to cry for them.

"Every individual wants to be valued as a human being," says Hutchison. "We may not know all of these people's names or know their histories, but we still want to honor their struggle."

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