Families Must Search for Homeless Relatives


Bridget Pendell could be “The Crier,” a willowy woman who wanders the darkest streets of San Francisco inexplicably weeping. She could be a wasted-thin drug addict with tribal face tattoos who is turning tricks in the Mission.

Or she could be dead.

Her sister, Jackie Horne, wants to know, and for the past seven years, she has been searching for Pendell all over the city, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Horne’s pursuit of Pendell, whose 31st birthday is in June, shows just how easy it is for the hard-core homeless to utterly disappear. Wherever junkies hang out or sell their bodies for sex, from the strip joints of North Beach to the roughest alleys of the Mission District — that’s where Horne hands out her 8 1/2-by-11-inch “missing person” posters. She scans the haggard faces, looking vainly for a grown-up version of the girl she played Barbie doll games with, then asks in a quiet, urgent voice: “Can you please help me? Have you seen my sister?”

Judging by the answers Horne gets, her sister — a former Barbizon modeling student who worked as a nurse before dissolving into drugs and prostitution — seems to be everywhere and nowhere all at once, like some phantom of the city’s homeless netherworld.

Nobody knows how many chronically homeless people are missing. They lose touch with family and friends — who are left to agonize and wonder about what went wrong — and eventually fold into the stream of panhandlers and sidewalk sleepers. With no ID, no welfare checks, no address, they become impossible to trace.

Even when they die.

More than 17,000 women like Pendell are reported missing in California every year, according to Department of Justice statistics, and no records are kept about which of those might be homeless. About 300 are found dead, and although most of the rest are located one way or another, the whereabouts of about 100 remain unknown at the end of every year — and those are just the ones who are reported.

Morgues throughout California house the remains of more than 2,000 people, dating back 45 years, who never have been identified. No central database for them exists, said Hallye Jordan of the state Department of Justice.

San Francisco authorities are sure that if Pendell is dead, she hasn’t shown up in their morgue. Same with Santa Cruz, the other city where Pendell was last seen.

“We have about two bodies a year we can’t identify, and we cremate another 160 or so every year because we ID them but can’t find any relatives to come claim them,” said Herb Hawley, administrator at the San Francisco medical examiner’s office. About 150 homeless people die in the city annually, but Hawley said Pendell probably wasn’t one of them because “we’ve only had two Jane Does since she went missing, and one of them is 60, and the other looks absolutely nothing like this girl.”

That doesn’t mean she didn’t die in some other county. Or some other state. There’s no way of knowing, he said.

Link: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2004/03/21/MNG0755EUS85.DTL

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