Our lives end as they began. Abruptly, unexpectedly, not necessarily as we had planned.
Donald David Hunt, 53, died yesterday morning, drowning in a canal in West Boca Raton, Florida. It was reported that he lived nearby and police are treating his death as an accident. At first glance it seems like an unfortunate incident but there’s more to the story.
Donald was homeless and he lived right next to the canal – literally – under a road bridge at the intersection of State Road 7 and Glades Road. Yesterday, the day of his death, was also his birthday.
He sold newspapers from the center median of the highway and he suffered from what all homeless people in Florida do – gross over-exposure to the sun, inaccessibility to basic hygiene and a dearth of the few items we all take for granted every day, like a shower, a bed or a razor.
There is little dignity in death. My first sight of Donald was of his upper body being held out of the water by a rope, his body stiff in rigor mortis. He couldn’t be moved until the Medical Examiners office arrived.
One of his friends saw him, turned on his heel and walked away crying, obviously not having known what had happened. Donald’s sleeping bag and all his worldly goods lay in the grass, not much to show for a lifetime of existence; too much to bring with him.
The cops, initially upset that people were watching, relaxed when they realized that these people, rather than being rubber-neckers, knew Donald by name; they were as upset for him as they would for anyone else. They bought their newspapers from him in the morning and chit-chatted with him as they waited for the traffic signal to change; they had done so for years. They knew him as a person.
It was up to the firemen to haul him out after a couple of hours. Fortunately the sun had not had time to do its work on the body. They gave him an element of privacy by pulling him onto an aluminum sled and covering him up as they brought him up to the waiting ME.
An obnoxious reporter with his camera arrived and buzzed about; a man on a mission on an Easter Sunday morning. His presence was mildly irritating until he loudly asked “where’s the body?” as if he was photographing a model. To him Donald was another trophy for his news collection portfolio. At that point he garnered the wrath of Donald’s friends and disappeared quickly, his job done.
I knew Donald as a feature of the intersection. Boca Raton is one of the few towns that allow the homeless an opportunity to pan-handle or make a few bucks selling newspapers. The homeless are also supported by local groups that bring them food, clothes and some basic necessities. More important than the free stuff is the fact that when they get their food they are, for a few minutes anyway, treated like real people. Nobody’s shouting at them to ‘get a job.’
What we as a community don’t give the Donald’s of this world is anything of worth except perhaps an overdose of criticism. This criticism is unfair as there are few, if any, avenues available for these guys and girls to pull themselves out of this pit of despair. Many are deeply mentally ill; their awareness of their surroundings a fog. Nobody really cares where they come from, they just want them gone.
Donald and his friends have no place to be evaluated for mental health although the cops do keep an eye on them and bring them to jail for the night if they are sick and in need of treatment. They have no place to wash except for the community lakes or the gas station bathroom.
There’s no rehab to give these few crumbs of civilization, who have fallen through all the cracks of society, a chance to get on their feet again. Who’s going to give a smelly sunburned guy a job? They harm no one and ask only for a few dollars for whatever it is they need. Whether that’s for food, booze or drugs is none of my business. They need what they need to survive.
I’m sure that years ago Donald didn’t see his end in the murky brown waters of an irrigation canal in Boca Raton.
He didn’t envision living under a bridge with snakes, rats, iguanas and other homeless people enveloped by the stench of humanity. He didn’t envision sliding off the embankment in his sleep to drown in the warm, dirty waters with hundreds of people passing overhead in their cars oblivious even to his existence.
He’ll be forgotten by Friday, another statistic, his possessions already shared among his fellow travelers. A sad way to end a life wouldn’t you agree?
Donald David Hunt. Happy Birthday man. Rest in Peace.