The final kindness

How Butte County handles the passing of its poorest residents, including three homeless people recently found dead on the streets of Chico

Jeffrey Gerlach and Colma Youpee met in Chico. This picture was taken less than two months before Youpee, who went by the nicknames Dakota and Lily, was found dead on Main Street on Nov. 4.

Jeffrey Gerlach and Colma Youpee met in Chico. This picture was taken less than two months before Youpee, who went by the nicknames Dakota and Lily, was found dead on Main Street on Nov. 4.

Photo by Emily Teague

Colma Roy Youpee was born April 20, 1956, on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana, homeland of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes. But on the streets of Chico, where Youpee spent the last several years of his life, the squat, dark-skinned man who sometimes liked to dress in women’s clothing preferred the name Lily. He also regularly used another handle, which he’d sometimes repeat hundreds of times daily while panhandling downtown.

“Hi, I’m Dakota from Montana,” ran his signature greeting, always delivered with a deep-set grin and preceding a request for money to get a cup of coffee, a bite to eat, or a few beers. His friend Jeffrey Gerlach was usually just yards away, and the duo exuded a combined charisma so disarming that many passersby couldn’t help but smile as they were relieved of their pocket change.

The pair went their separate ways the chilly morning of Wednesday, Nov. 4, with plans to meet up that afternoon where they’d been camping, at the back of the parking lot on the northwest corner of Eighth and Main streets. When Gerlach returned to see two policemen standing over Youpee as he lay bundled in his sleeping bag, he assumed they were hassling his friend and kept walking, returning about an hour later.

“I was walking by Chico Natural and a few of the people that work there came out and said they saw the coroner, and asked if it was Dakota,” Gerlach recalled during a recent interview. “I thought he’d just got up and left somewhere for a while.

“Well, apparently, he did,” Gerlach continued, his tone dropping. “He got up and went to the spirit world.”

Youpee, 59, was one of three homeless people to die on the streets of Chico during the first several days of November. On Nov. 2, Edward Louis Doran, 42, was found dead at Depot Park. On Nov. 10, a security guard discovered the body of Sharon Ann Gray, 59, near Evans Furniture and Highway 99. The deaths coincided with a cold snap that began Nov. 1, with temperatures dropping from daytime highs near 90 to nighttime lows in the 30s in just a few days.

The deaths went mostly unnoticed by all but members of the local homeless population and their advocates, and came at a time when the majority of those parties also felt a figurative chill in the local climate. In September, the Chico City Council passed the Offenses Against Waterways and Public Property initiative by a 6-to-1 vote, which critics say is designed to make life harder for the homeless.

America’s struggle with homelessness and its root cause, poverty, is a complex one, involving social, economic, political, even religious, concerns. The deaths of three people in eight days on the streets of Chico prompts many questions. Who were these poor souls? If a society is measured by how it treats its weakest members, what do the deaths say about our own community? Who ensures the indigent, or very poor, who pass away in Butte County—homeless and otherwise—receive the dignity in death they were often deprived of in life?

Chief Deputy Coroner Lt. Dennis Cooley said the deaths of three homeless people in a span of eight days last month is out of the ordinary.

Photo by Ken Smith

Small details of Youpee’s life are collected in scattered newspaper articles and public records: a 2007 obituary for his nephew, Geoffrey Red Eagle of Poplar, Mont., suggests he was known by another nickname on the reservation—PeeWee; he married in 1978 in Washington, was arrested at least twice in Sonora, in Mariposa County, for writing bad checks and public intoxication. Butte County Superior Court records list more than 20 separate citations dating back to 2011, including several for public intoxication, illegal camping, one for violating Chico’s sit/lie ordinance, and one for being at City Plaza when it was “closed.” Youpee also logged many failures to appear in court and failures to pay fines, with several resulting in arrest warrants.

Gerlach painted a clearer picture of the man he said “was a very kind, generous and helpful person” and “the best road dog I ever had.” He recalled meeting Youpee the first night he himself arrived in Chico, about four years ago.

“I was sitting on a bridge over the creek, and he comes up with his cousin,” he recalled. “They had some drinks with ’em, and I already had mine, so we started talking and we became friends. We’ve been palling around ever since, y’know, just living the street life.

“He liked to drink, and I like to drink, and together we’d usually make enough to survive every day, get something to eat and maybe a few beers,” Gerlach continued, noting Youpee might spring for a bottle of his favorite liquor, vodka, on particularly bounteous days. “It’s a simple type of living, but not really that simple ’cause there’s a lot you have to deal with.”

When asked if Youpee’s cross-dressing was an issue for him, Gerlach replied, “Nah … nobody else gave him a hard time about it. Everybody that knew him loved him. They’d all just say, ‘Ah, Lily, yeah he’s cool … he’d give you the shirt right off his back.’”

Gerlach said Youpee had family in the area, and every so often he’d clean himself up to go visit them for a few days. He said Youpee also claimed to have eight daughters from eight separate wives, including one daughter who’d died in a car accident. “I think that’s when he just ran away,” Gerlach said. “It was too much; he told his family to keep all the money and he’d go to the street. He couldn’t stay cooped up.”

Earlier this year, Youpee and Gerlach hatched a plan to head to Santa Cruz, where Youpee said he knew some counselors and social workers who he believed could help them get sober and off the streets. Gerlach said he could see his friend’s health declining as the whites in his eyes yellowed during his last few months.

“A lot of other people noticed it, too, and kept telling him to get to the hospital,” Gerlach said. “He said, ‘I did; they won’t do nothing for me.’ So maybe [the doctors] already knew there’s only so much you can do past a certain point.”

According to the Butte County Coroner’s Office, Youpee’s official cause of death was “acute subdural hematoma due to complications of cirrhosis.” On the night of the day he passed, Gerlach said he found some of his and Youpee’s mutual friends, had some drinks, and they all toasted their fallen comrade.

The Butte County Cemetery served as the local “potter’s field”—where the destitute and unknown were traditionally laid to rest—for about a century, but is no longer in use.

Photo by Ken Smith

“Hopefully he’s in a better place. A lot of people miss him.”

A glimpse into the life of Doran, the man whose body was found in Depot Park, can be found in an article in the Chico Enterprise-Record from Oct. 24, 2013. Reporter Almendra Carpizo accompanied a park ranger and a pair of state park officers as they cleared Little Chico Creek of illegal campers, and described the officers’ encounter with Doran and his dog, Biscuit, who they found camped beneath the railroad tracks.

Doran told the officers he’d left his job and home in Oregon to live with a local woman, but had been sleeping in the creek since she’d thrown him out a month earlier. He said he’d stayed in Chico because he had a court date for shoplifting, and began to tear up as the officers spoke to him about the missed court date and his illegal camp. When told he wouldn’t be arrested but needed to leave the area, he said he’d comply, but didn’t know where he’d go. When Doran’s body was found two years later, it was just a quarter-mile from where he’d spoken those words.

In addition to the petty theft charge alluded to in the E-R article, Doran had multiple illegal camping charges, and a citation for possession of a controlled substance. His official cause of death was acute methamphetamine poisoning.

Little information is available about Gray, the woman found near Highway 99, other than that her last address was in Yuba City. Her lack of identification and local law enforcement contact made it more difficult for death investigators to figure out who she was. Her official cause of death is still pending autopsy results.

In Butte County, the sheriff’s and coroner’s offices are a combined entity, both overseen by the elected sheriff-coroner, Kory Honea. But most of the day-to-day operations of the latter department are supervised by Lt. Dennis Cooley, chief deputy coroner and a 25-year law enforcement veteran.

Like Honea, Cooley also wears two hats, and oversees investigations as a sheriff’s lieutenant. He explained that all officers in the department are both deputy sheriffs (law enforcement) and deputy coroners (death investigators). Cooley noted that this arrangement is typical in smaller California counties.

Butte County lacks a central facility for processing the deceased and storing bodies, and contracts with local funeral homes to perform those services. Autopsies are also performed at these mortuaries by a certified forensic pathologist.

The coroner’s office handles the deaths of a handful of homeless people each year, Cooley said, though it doesn’t keep official statistics about a decedent’s housing status. He also said three in such a short time span was out of the ordinary.

Funeral director Marc Brusie stands next to The Fountain of Tranquility, beneath which the unclaimed ashes of Butte County’s indigent—homeless and otherwise—are scattered.

Photo by Ken Smith

“I think it’s maybe because of the time of the year,” he said. “It gets cold, and most [homeless people] are probably ill to begin with, and their bodies just can’t withstand the change in temperature.”

Cooley gave a rundown of how business is done at the coroner’s office, and began by holding up a copy of his daily report on deaths in the county. Two people had died in Butte County the previous day (Nov. 23).

“[The daily number] really varies,” he said. “I can come in, not have any and say, ‘Hey, it’s a good day; no one died!’ But the busiest I think we had was 16 deaths over the course of a weekend; then they all hit us on a Monday. It’s completely unpredictable.”

Cooley explained most deaths in the county are of natural causes, attended by doctors and next of kin, and don’t require a coroner’s case or death investigation, leaving his office to focus on murders, suicides, accidents, suspicious and unattended deaths. Most cases involving homeless people fall under the last category.

The coroner’s first order of business is identifying the deceased and locating his or her next of kin. That search usually begins with local criminal records, and sometimes involves searching jail visitation logs to identify survivors. Investigators also sift through personal effects and try to gather information from known acquaintances. Further research is done using a comprehensive database called The Last One, or TLO.

Sometimes, as in Gray’s case, the typical tools fall short: “We had no idea who she was, no clue. So we got fingerprints and took them to the [Department of Justice] in Sacramento to see if they hopefully had her in the database, and they did, so we were able to find out who she is. Once we found that out, we were able to find her next of kin.”

Youpee’s and Doran’s families were also located and contacted.

Marc Brusie has been in the family business—Brusie Funeral Homes and Cemeteries—since 1992, and serves as a funeral director at the downtown business his grandfather opened in 1942. He also works at Bidwell Chapel, which was the mortuary-in-rotation (Chico’s four funeral facilities take turns working with the county coroner on deaths in or around the city) when the three November deaths occurred. He personally oversaw after-life care for all three, and picked up two of the bodies from the scene.

Despite having attended to thousands of decedents in his 20-plus years, Brusie found himself uncharacteristically affected when called to pick up Youpee: “I may not have known him personally, but I work downtown and had seen him hundreds of times, almost always smiling and palling around with his friend. When you get a call and you find it’s someone you’re familiar with, you feel bad.”

Many of those buried at the Butte County Cemetery could not be identified at the time of their deaths.

Photo by Ken Smith

Butte County has an indigent burial program, as mandated by the California Health and Safety Code, which subsidizes end-of-life care for the extremely poor, homeless and otherwise. If no family is found, an application for the program is filed by the funeral director. Otherwise, all surviving immediate family members living in the state of California must provide proof that funeral costs are too heavy of a financial burden. The applications are reviewed by the county public administrator’s office.

Families can’t choose to simply ignore funeral expenses, and doing so is a misdemeanor punishable by up to $10,000 in fines and up to one year in jail. Cooley said that most shirkers usually step up to the plate when presented with the penalties. Cremations, by comparison, generally cost between $500 and $1,000.

Shelby Boston, assistant director of the Butte County Department of Employment and Social Services, explained the public administrator conducts a thorough investigation to ensure the deceased and their families can’t pay: “This is intended to be the absolute last resort,” she said. “It’s paid with county dollars, so it’s very important we ensure that families meet the criteria.”

If the deceased has money or other assets totaling more than $600, Boston said the public administrator can use those funds for end-of-life care in lieu of approving an indigent burial application.

Boston also provided some numbers. In the 2012-13 fiscal year, the county indigent burial program received 182 applications, 163 of which were approved, and the county spent $144,394. The following year, 173 applications were submitted. Of those, 142 were approved, and $140,180 was spent. In 2015, 144 total referrals resulted in 123 approvals, and $145,510 in expenditures. Boston said some of the increased expenditures per burial are due to a recent change in policy; the county once contracted with select funeral homes, but now allows every licensed facility in the county to participate.

The program ultimately covers only cremation and to have the ashes scattered. Cremains are held at the funeral home for 30 days, and by the county for one year to allow claimants to step forward. If no one does, the ashes are moved one last time.

From the late 1800s through the 1980s, the ultimate destination for the local indigent and unknown was the Butte County Cemetery, a 2.5-acre swath of lawn located a stone’s throw from the courthouse and county government buildings in Oroville. The cemetery is a classic example of what was once widely known as a potter’s field, where the indigent and unknown were laid low.

The graveyard is marked by a large sign on County Center Drive, but it’s easy to pass by without realizing it since there are no marble monuments typical in most cemeteries. The lawn holds roughly 2,000 flat, concrete headstones worn low into the grass, invisible from more than a few feet away. Many of the inscriptions are illegible, and contain only the information available at the time of interment. There are graves with just first or last names (sometimes misspelled), burial dates, or literal descriptions (i.e., “Nelson Baby”). Many read “Unknown” or “John Doe.” Some lack inscriptions at all, and local legend maintains the close-set graves were dug by inmates from the nearby jail.

Since 2005, unclaimed ashes are deposited into an ossuary—a vault designed to hold human remains, and in this case cremains—at Glen Oaks Memorial Park in Chico, which is also owned by the family of Marc Brusie. The ossuary itself is underground, and lies beneath a beautiful rock structure known as the Fountain of Tranquility. It contains not only ashes of the indigent, but also those of clients whose survivors pay for them to be interred there. Prior to placing the ashes, cemetery staff double-checks with the public administrator’s office, which makes a final attempt to find someone to claim the cremains.

Glen Oaks Manager Claudia Bartlett said the ashes of 166 indigent people have been scattered in the ossuary since it was built in September 2005, at a rate of about 15 per year.

“As far as interments for the poor, the county could do a worse job than this,” Brusie said during a recent visit, as the late afternoon sun fell on the fountain.

On a recent rainy afternoon, Gerlach and two other homeless men sat on the grass adjacent to the Chico Skate Park, offering kind words for Youpee. Gerlach said he’s “been trying to drink less and eat more” since the death of his comrade, and he hasn’t camped in the parking lot on Main Street since Youpee took his last breath there. He wondered aloud about Youpee’s final resting place and contemplated his own mortality.

“I dunno where they took Dakota, or what they’ll do with him … I don’t really know how Native Americans handle that sort of thing,” he said.

“I figure when I go, they can just let me lay where I lay. Let the buzzards come take me; I don’t really care, because hopefully my soul will be in a better place.”