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Heatwave's homeless victims die in obscurity

Associated Press
Published July 24, 2005

PHOENIX - Almost every day, the lady with the chestnut hair and slight smile stopped by the tire shop to ask for a drink. Jose Perez would take a break from his work to offer a cup of water or whatever he had on hand.

She was 50ish and painfully skinny. She lived with a man under a plywood shelter on the other side of a chain-link fence behind the store.

Perez last saw her a week ago, when the temperature hit 116 degrees. She lay on a mound of dirt outside the shelter as paramedics worked to revive her. She died right before his eyes. "Scary," said Perez, 20, who never even knew her name.

In the span of a week, in the throes of a record heat wave, this transient and 13 others perished in metropolitan Phoenix. They lived in obscurity, and many of them died the same way: anonymous, ignored, alone. Some were discovered only after strangers stumbled upon them and dialed 911.

Now, as Salvation Army volunteers hand out water and social workers coax vagabonds into shelters, the city is grappling with another challenge: How to put a name to the nameless, find their families and bury the dead.

"Hopefully he gets a nice funeral, he gets to rest in peace," Rosalie Munoz said.

She stands in the parking lot behind America Mufflers a few miles west of downtown, sipping a cold drink through a straw. She points to the wall where, on Monday afternoon, she and her boyfriend found a man known on the streets as Martin.

They'd seen him around, pushing a grocery cart and distributing cards explaining that he was a deaf-mute in need of spare change. On Monday, however, Martin was slumped against the wall under the scalding sun. His cart - and his pulse - were gone.

All the bodies are being examined by the county medical examiner's office, which will perform autopsies to determine cause of death and obtain fingerprints.

"If things go as planned, bingo - there that person is," says Phoenix Detective Tony Morales. "The big problem is finding any next of kin. They're homeless, they come from who-knows-where. Most of them don't carry a phone book in their pockets saying if something happens to them call "Dad' at this number. It takes a lot of legwork."

[Last modified July 24, 2005, 00:32:04]

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