Homeless dead cost Cook County hundreds per burial

By Margaret Anderson

Plywood boxes are stacked in a warehouse at Cook County Facilities Management waiting for a call from the medical examiner’s office, where they’ll be the last home for those who died on the street.

Each time a homeless person is buried, the cost to Cook County is $474. There are over 6,000 homeless braving the Chicago winter, but the city has beds for only 3,000, said Matt Smith, the communication director for the Department of Family and Support Services.

During last year’s extreme cold, Smith said there were people who did not want to come in from the cold, despite Chicago’s outreach efforts. “We respect their choices and we can’t force them to come in,” Smith said, “Every time we go out, we check in on them.”

There have been 14 cold-related deaths this winter. Eight were confirmed to be homeless, said Frank Shuftan, the public information officer at the Cook County Bureau of Administration.

Homeless Death Infographic
When the body of a homeless person is found, a process begins that can sometimes take months to complete. (Margaret Anderson/Medill)

When the body of a homeless person is found, the police will conduct a death investigation and attempt to identify the body through DNA and fingerprints. The body is then taken to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office, where an autopsy is performed.

“A person might be brought in and the most obvious cause of death is hypothermia, but then the autopsy might show that they died of a drug overdose or a heart attack,” Shuftan said.

If the body is unidentified, a description of the remains, where the body was found, and sometimes a sketch of what the person might have looked like is added to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s website, where 30 people are currently listed. If the body is unclaimed but has been identified, a name and age also appears as one of 149 listed people on the site.

A body is held at the medical examiner’s office for 60 days, according to Shuftan. If the deceased is believed to have been a veteran, it is kept for 90 days to verify military history. After two weeks, some bodies are donated for educational purposes.

The rest go on to be buried or cremated. Cook County is the second to last large city in the U.S. that still buries its indigent, right behind New York, according to Shuftan. Last year was the first year the county began cremating. None of the unidentified are cremated and family permission is required, Shuftan said.

The bodies are then placed in plywood boxes, made by the carpenters in County Facilities Management. From there, they go to Homewood Memorial Gardens, about an hour’s drive south of Chicago.

The cemetery has been burying Cook County’s indigent since 1980, said Tom Flynn, the owner and president of the cemetery, who estimates that they bury around 200 bodies per year for Cook County.

The cemetery has a contract through the Office of the Chief Procurement Officer, according to Shuftan.

Flynn estimated that 7,000 of Cook County’s indigents have been buried at Homewood Memorial Gardens. The deceased share one headstone.

Homeless Headstone
A headstone at Homewood Memorial Gardens marks the graves of Cook County’s unclaimed and unidentified dead. Before 2013, the graves were unmarked. (Margaret Anderson/Medill)

For those working with the homeless back in the city, those who pass away simply seem to vanish.

“They might be in a spot for two months,” said Joshua Brollier, an outreach worker with Thresholds, “and then all of a sudden, they’re not there.”