Barred, Unclaimed, Then Buried

His six-month ban from a city shelter was up the next day, but Jack McDonnell decided to die. Did it have to be that way?

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff   |  1/07/2004

Before stripping off all his clothes, cursing the cancer that took his wife, and lying naked on the frozen ground, Jack McDonnell said he wanted to die.

He got his wish.

The call came in early last month, on one of the season's first frigid nights, for a man dancing naked in the streets near West Roxbury District Court in Jamaica Plain. When officers arrived shortly after dusk, they found the 58-year-old Vietnam veteran sprawled out beneath a bridge, in a cramped, fenced-off area strewn with garbage and teeming with rats. He was waiting to die.

One of hundreds of homeless men and women barred from city shelters on any day of the year - including the coldest winter nights - McDonnell was banned at the nearby Friends of the Shattuck Shelter, where he often stayed during a decade of homelessness. His six-month expulsion would have expired the next day.

When paramedics arrived around 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 4, the naked man remained conscious. They wrapped him in a wool blanket, fastened his cold body to a long board, and ferried him to the back of an ambulance, where the driver had the heat on full blast. Then he stopped breathing, and paramedics lost his pulse. A few hours later, at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, doctors pronounced him dead - the first homeless man authorities believe died of hypothermia this winter season.

Could McDonnell, a father of two and a former alcoholic-awareness counselor, have been saved? Did the city's safety net fail a man who became homeless after his wife died a decade ago? And how could a man who police and outreach workers knew was self-destructive, who nearly died of hypothermia once before and who was again drowning himself in alcohol, be left to sleep under the Arborway Causeway on a day when the temperature plunged to 22 degrees?

Some homeless advocates blame state budget cuts, noting the shelter recently laid off McDonnell's longtime social worker and that the Legislature last year slashed more than half of the state's detox beds. Others question why publicly subsidized shelters, the last refuge of the most downtrodden, are allowed to bar the homeless, sometimes for minor reasons. Some argue city police should have the power to take McDonnell, who had been well known to them for years, into protective custody.

"The system failed him, maybe even defeated him," said Joe Churchill, executive director of the Shattuck shelter. "You feel a sense of despair whenever you hear about a case like this."

Six-month ban

A well-known presence at the Shattuck since the early 1990s, McDonnell was barred in June after stumbling in drunk, cussing staff, and raising his fists when issued a warning, shelter officials said. Deemed a risk to the staff and other guests, administrators asked a state trooper to escort him off shelter property and inform him he wouldn't be allowed to return or obtain any of its social services for six months.

By the time of his death, McDonnell was among 103 people barred from the Shattuck last year for more than a day, 47 of whom had received similar six-month penalties. In 2002, the shelter banned 306 people - some indefinitely, some just for a day - for offenses including violence, stealing, selling drugs, sexual activity, bringing food into the sleeping quarters, and failing to follow staff directions or maintain proper hygiene.

Barring the homeless from shelters has long been controversial. Pushing people out of a refuge often defeats the efforts of outreach workers, who spend countless hours trying to persuade the hundreds of city residents who regularly sleep outside to come inside.

When the trooper booted McDonnell last summer - a fate that had befallen him before - the drunken homeless man vowed never to return, screaming "to hell with all of them," friends of his said.

So he moved under the bridge, where he befriended Tabetha Blanton, a 19-year-old who a year ago traded foster care for homelessness. The two often sang old songs together - tunes like "Build Me Up, Buttercup" - and she would help cut his hair, trim his beard, and mend some of the wounds he suffered from the random attacks street dwellers confront all too often. Once, someone slit his throat while he slept beneath the bridge, and later she used nail clippers to remove stitches from his neck.

Blanton encouraged him to return to the shelter, to appeal his case, as anyone barred can. But he refused. "He said he would never come back - he felt rejected," said Blanton, who called him "Grandpa."

More than a week after his death, she began to cry while remembering him. "I loved him," she said. "It broke my heart when he died." When she asked why he wouldn't stay in another shelter, she said he insisted: "I'm happy. I just need a blanket and a pillow."

Other friends said McDonnell thought it wasn't worth the effort of staying at another shelter. At the Shattuck, where he had become a part of the family, he had a bed reserved and kept many of his possessions in a locker. At other shelters, he told his friends, he didn't want to be packed in "like sardines."
In recent years, the state's homeless population has reached record numbers.

One night last month, a survey of 80 state shelters found they exceeded capacity by an average of 26 percent. The shelters, according to the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, have exceeded capacity every month over the past five years.

"There aren't enough beds," said David Lewis, 53, a former carpenter who knew McDonnell for two years and joined him under the bridge after also being barred from the Shattuck. "He didn't want to go to the Pine Street Inn or anywhere else to sleep in a chair or on the hard floor of the lobby."

Safety concerns

As cruel as barring may seem during the winter, shelter officials say it's an unfortunate necessity.

Although they acknowledge barring has sometimes-deadly consequences - at least six people barred from city shelters, including McDonnell, have died in the streets in the past four years, outreach workers say - their first obligation, they argue, is the safety of the majority of guests who follow the rules.

"If we could save everyone, we would do that," said Deborah Farrell Nelson, a spokeswoman for the Shattuck.

But with more and more people cramming every night into already overcrowded shelters and fewer dollars and staff to oversee them, she and others said, the necessity for barring has only increased in recent years. At the Shattuck, which accommodates 110 people every night in bunk beds and dozens of others on thin mats, budget cuts in the past year and a half have required shelter administrators to lay off one-third of their staff, including Ali Rashid, who had served as McDonnell's social worker and helped find beds for him and others at area detox facilities.

The problem, however, isn't the lack of money as much as it is the way the shelter system works, homeless advocates say.

Even if shelters had more money, advocates note, they don't employ sufficient staff with the medical authorization to treat the mentally ill and hard-core drug addicts, many of whom end up in the city's emergency shelter system. Moreover, the city lacks programs to look after those who are barred, protective-custody laws that would allow officers to forcibly remove people from the streets, or an organized hierarchy of shelters, in which police might be able to transfer scofflaws to a more secure facility. Now, when someone is particularly unruly, violent, or breaks the law, he often ends up in what many on the streets call the "Gray Bar Hotel" - jail.

Another problem, advocates say, is the shortage of detox beds. Last year, at a time when most detox centers had a waiting list, the Legislature cut the number of state-subsidized beds from 997 to 420, with many of the losses in the Boston area. Men like McDonnell would check into detox once or twice a month, to sober up for a while. The result, advocates say: At least eight of the city's 42 homeless deaths as of late December were the result of overdoses, significantly more than in previous years.

The city's lack of a protective-custody law - which would enable police officers, like those in New York, Philadelphia, and other northern cities, to remove the homeless from the streets on the coldest nights - makes it more likely people will die on the streets of Boston, advocates say. In 2002, 12 people died on the streets here, while advocates reported only 10 died in New York City, which has a homeless population more than six times the size of Boston's. In 2003, at least 1,400 street people died throughout the country, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

"These are all tough and complicated issues," said Dr. James O'Connell, president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, who argues the city should open small shelters to accommodate those who are barred. "I hate barring, but sometimes, given the way the system works now, it's absolutely expedient."

As far as promoting protective custody, which many outreach workers argue would push many of the homeless underground and make them harder to look after, O'Connell said: "This is a lingering and torturing issue. When is it OK for us to take away someone's rights? I don't know the answer."

But he and others believe more should have been done to look after McDonnell, who a few years ago was found lying in the middle of a road during a snowstorm and last year was found suffering from hypothermia, shelter officials said. Studies show a homeless person with a previous bout of hypothermia is seven times more likely to die of exposure if left on the streets, O'Connell said.

Back then, when Paula McDonald, who now runs the Shattuck shelter, served as McDonnell's social worker, she obtained a court-ordered treatment plan and had him involuntarily committed to spend a month sobering up at Bridgewater State Hospital. This time, with fewer resources and the bar preventing him from returning to the shelter, McDonnell slipped through the cracks.

"If the position of his social worker had not been cut," McDonald said, "I think there's a possibility he wouldn't be dead."

A generous man

A former garbage man who grew up in Hyde Park, according to shelter staff and friends, McDonnell rarely talked about his past, except when the vodka or whiskey got to his head and he dwelled on the cancer that claimed his wife, Maria, and thrust him to the bottle and a life on the streets.

Often in good spirits, the man with straw-colored, scraggly hair always let his friends know he was approaching. They could hear his voice booming down the street: "If it was good enough for Peter, it was good enough for Paul," they could hear him sing. "If he didn't have any money, he didn't have it at all."

Friends considered McDonnell a generous man, though his possessions, which were still under the bridge late last month, included little more than old Fila sneakers, an deflated air mattress, a cooler, National Geographic magazines, a wood sign reading "Need Coffee Truck," and what he called his "little shrine" of toy ducks and rabbits.

"If he had a penny, he would give it to you," said Jim Morgan, 48, who met McDonnell six years ago. Morgan pointed to a pillow and blanket that McDonnell gave him when Morgan, too, found himself barred from the Shattuck and living under the bridge.

Friends and shelter officials said they believe McDonnell had two sons but that he hadn't seen them in years. The only relative they know he kept in contact with was his mother, Mary McDonnell, who would meet him by the Forest Hills MBTA station to bring him money. She last lived in Roslindale, shelter officials think, but her phone number no longer works, and they aren't certain she's still alive.

At the shelter, despite his occasional outbursts, the staff liked McDonnell. Once, the shelter director said, he brought a big rose bush to the Shattuck and planted it beside the building. "It bloomed beautifully for two years," the shelter director said. "He would do nice things like that."

But McDonnell also had a temper, especially when he drank, which he did increasingly in recent months. Once the alcohol took effect, despair followed, friends and shelter officials said, and he would talk about joining his wife. It became a kind of mantra, so his friends under the bridge didn't take him seriously earlier last month when he began taking off his brown corduroy jeans and red flannel shirt.

Finally, one of them, a man who his friends call Jimmy K, put a blanket atop McDonnell. But he threw it off and kept muttering about his wife. After the sun set, friends said Jimmy K ran to a phone and dialed 911.

By the time police and paramedics arrived beneath the bridge and slipped through the small opening in the fenced-off area, they found McDonnell's body dangerously cold.

"There was a lot that could have been done that wasn't," McDonald said. "But what really killed Jack was his alcoholism."

McDonnell may have gotten his wish, but he's yet to join his wife. No relative has come to claim his body, and, for now, the man who spent the past six months of his life outside will, in death, remain inside, at the city morgue.

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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