Donald Duncan lived on the streets, was often drunk, and had used the Saint Luke’s Hospital emergency room as a safe haven for so long that the head of the department remembered him all the way back to her medical school days.
He could be blustery and profane but he also was the guy who’d shout, “I love you man!” to ER nurses, croon classic rock tunes and coin nicknames for everyone in sight.
And in the end, he had endeared himself so much to Saint Luke’s staff that they did not want to let his July 6 death go without a chance to say goodbye.
They held a memorial service Thursday in the chapel of Saint Luke’s Hospital. Dr. Alie Scholes, chair of the Emergency Medicine Department, was among those who shared stories about Duncan.
Her favorite she said was watching Duncan order around the hospital’s new chief executive when she was shadowing Scholes on a blustery Saturday night around Christmas a few years back.
Duncan was a free spirit “who just didn’t want to be confined to four walls,” said Susan Overton, a sister who lives in Kansas City, Kan. She said she spent two decades fielding his late-night phone calls and rescuing him from the elements.
He died outside on a day when the high temperature was 104 degrees and broke a record that had stood for nearly 60 years. He was 55 years old.
People like Duncan make up a just a sliver of the Kansas City area’s homeless population, said Evie Craig, executive director of reStart Inc., an interfaith ministry that provides shelter and support services to the homeless.
For instance, according to a report issued last year by the Greater Kansas City Homelessness Task Force, approximately 5,000 school-aged children were among the five-county region’s roughly 13,000 homeless persons.
The report also said there were more than 17,000 people awaiting subsidized housing through authorities in Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan. The average wait on the lists in both cities was about four years.
One way to better serve the region’s homeless, Craig said, would be to develop outreach teams to locate homeless persons and families that have not already sought services.
“We don’t have a good system for going out and finding these folks,” she said.
The goal of the outreach teams would be, “you stay on them until they are housed,” she said.
One of the newer concepts in attacking homelessness, Craig said, was making housing the No. 1 priority.
That may not sound revolutionary, she said, but past efforts have focused more on substance abuse, joblessness and other causes of homelessness.
Craig and reStart are coordinating local participation in a national effort to find housing for 100,000 homeless people by July 2013.
Working with funding through the Missouri Housing Development Commission, reStart is in the process of hiring a staff person for the project and securing apartments.
By January, as part of the national homelessness census, reStart officials expect to begin identifying the most vulnerable individuals in need of housing.
“It might be the person closest to death,” Craig said.
Working through the Mid-America Regional Council and its Community Development Director Marlene Nagel, the homelessness task force also is taking steps to implement the recommendations in its report.
According to Nagel, some of initiatives include:
- Ensuring housing agencies and providers have good online access to directories of affordable housing available in the region. One national resource already available is socialserve.com.
- Exploring how officials could renovate vacant houses, especially in the urban core, for the homeless.
- Coordinating intake procedures to better track the flow of the homeless population through the various agencies.
- Maximizing grant funding. Nagel recently worked with a group of agencies that applied for funding through the federal Administration for Children and Families.
Duncan’s three sisters said they doubted there was anything that would have convinced him to give up the freedom he felt living on the streets.
Along with Overton, Annie Carroll of St. Robert, Mo., and Duncan’s twin, Rita Shuler, of Bonner Springs, Kan., attended the memorial service.
They said his life was changed forever when he suffered brain damage in a car accident at age 16.
“He just never mentally grew up,” Shuler said.
The Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City is proud to partner with the Kansas Health Institute news service to provide weekly health stories about health and policy issues impacting the greater Kansas City region. This News Service is an editorially independent program of the Kansas Health Institute and the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City and is committed to objective coverage of health issues.