What Happens When a Homeless Person Dies?

Dr. Colin Buzza visits an Oakland homeless camp as part of a street treatment program for opioid addiction and mental illness. (Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle)
Dr. Colin Buzza visits an Oakland homeless camp as part of a street treatment program for opioid addiction and mental illness. (Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle)

It had been weeks since Larry Joseph Botelho was spotted outside the box truck he lived in and kept parked near the Oakland airport. By the time someone asked police to check on him, the 63-year-old homeless man’s body was decomposing on a makeshift bed in the truck.

The Alameda County coroner’s office determined he died of natural causes. An investigator tracked down doctors, social workers and former employers, ran fingerprints, reviewed government records and an ancestry website, but found no relatives.

Botelho was cremated as an indigent — his ashes sent to Holy Cross Cemetery in Antioch, and his truck towed. Coroner’s case No. 01378 was closed.

Nothing in the official record shows he died homeless. His death certificate lists a home address: the spot on 98th Avenue where his truck was parked.

Like many local governments, Alameda County does not collect data on how many homeless people die each year or their causes of death. Even if it did, neither the state nor federal government tracks such data — or requires that it be collected.

The Chronicle checked with coroners’ and medical examiners’ offices, county public health departments, the California Department of Public Health, U.S. Health and Human Services, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and found that none had records on how many homeless people die — or mandates to collect the information.

The California Electronic Death Registration System, a database run by the state Department of Public Health, occasionally gets a death certificate where “homeless” or “encampment” is listed in place of a person’s residence, said spokeswoman Theresa Mier. But there aren’t any guidelines for doctors or medical examiners on when to use the designation.

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SOURCE: Kimberly Veklerov
SFGATE