On the Street, Few Options and Many Perils

At McPherson Square, the Rev. Susan Burns, left, and Robin Denegal, right, advocates for the homeless, honor those who died homeless in the District.
At McPherson Square, the Rev. Susan Burns, left, and Robin Denegal, right, advocates for the homeless, honor those who died homeless in the District. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 22, 2006

David Feliz made no excuses for his life -- for his homelessness, for the drinking that left him incapable of pulling himself together. It was one of the reasons that people liked him.

"He accepted the life he'd chosen," said the Rev. Kathleen Kline Chesson, senior minister at First Christian Church in Falls Church, where Feliz was a regular at a twice-weekly day shelter over the past few winters.

Feliz's acceptance of his troubled life doesn't make it any easier for his friends and family to accept how he died. Feliz, 45, was found dead on the morning of Dec. 11 in the laundry room of an apartment building in the Culmore neighborhood, where he'd probably spent the night. Fairfax County police describe his injuries as "upper body trauma." His sister, Karen Shira, a former deputy sheriff in Fairfax, said investigators told her that he had been stabbed five times, one of the wounds piercing his aorta.

Police have made no arrests and said the investigation is continuing.

Feliz's death comes as Fairfax churches, aided by the county government and a nonprofit agency, are opening their doors to shelter the homeless during very cold weather this winter. Organizers said they hope to duplicate last year's result -- no known hypothermia deaths.

But the slaying is a reminder that freezing conditions are only one of the threats facing those who live outdoors.

Nearly 170 homeless people in the United States have been slain in the past six years, and nearly 500 others were violently attacked, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. There have been beatings with baseball bats, stabbings, stompings and kickings, and some have been set on fire.

Mortality rates for the homeless are three times as high as for the general population, according to research compiled by the coalition. The average life expectancy is 51. Afflictions such as alcoholism, heart disease and gastrointestinal disorders take on an added lethality.

Yesterday evening on McPherson Square in Northwest Washington, the coalition and the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, held a ceremony in observance of National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day. Organizers planned a candlelight vigil and a reading of the names of the homeless who died in the District in 2006.

The county keeps no statistics on the deaths of homeless people, but Feliz is the third known to have died recently in Fairfax. While police say no foul play is suspected in the two other cases, formal determination of the causes of death are awaiting the completion of toxicology tests.

On the morning of Nov. 6, the body of Gregory Lou Wireman, 52, was found in woods near Reston Town Center that are often used by the homeless as a campsite. Randy Blankinship, 58, was found dead Oct. 28 in a tent in woods about 200 yards from the intersection of Mount Vernon Drive and Arlington Terrace.

Last week's killing has jolted the homeless population of the Baileys Crossroads area, where Feliz, a short man with a thick moustache, was known as generous and friendly.

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