Death by homelessness

Someone left a dozen carnations at the spot where Michelle Vierra died last week.

Someone left a dozen carnations at the spot where Michelle Vierra died last week.

Michelle Vierra died in the dirt last week. She was found on Halloween, nestled in a hollowed-out sleeping space between a building and a cactus along the train tracks in Midtown, a hiding spot the homeless use to keep from getting hassled.

Except for a brief, anonymous news item buried in the daily paper, her death might have gone unheralded. But Vierra’s body was found two days before Loaves & Fishes dedicated a Memorial Wall to their 207 guests who have died since 1990 from exposure, violence, addiction or the many other hazards of homelessness.

In dedicating the wall that was his inspiration, former Loaves & Fishes director LeRoy Chatfield invoked Vierra’s name and story, which he said were “the best explanation for why this is needed.”

“A beautiful woman” in her mid-30s, gentle and soft-spoken, Vierra had been a regular visitor to the group’s Maryhouse day center for women and children. “She was trapped, she felt, in an abusive relationship, and she had the marks to prove it,” Chatfield said.

Yet police say there were no marks or obvious signs of trauma on Vierra’s body. An autopsy failed to determine the cause of her death, but follow-up tests could reveal more in the next few weeks.

As of last Friday, police and homeless advocates were still looking for her longtime boyfriend, whom they would not identify. While “we have heard the same thing you have about the abusive relationship,” said Sgt. Lance McHenry, Vierra had filed no police reports, and the case is not being approached as a homicide.

“We would like to talk to her boyfriend,” McHenry said. “We just need to find out the last time he saw her, which is standard for cases like this.”

The Maryhouse employee who knew Vierra best was LeAnne Harvey. She confirmed the abuse suffered by Vierra, whom she said regularly had bad cuts and bruises and carried herself in the withdrawn, downcast manner of an abuse victim.

Harvey was also able to shed light on the one quirky detail in Vierra’s all-too-common story: the fact that she was found fully clothed, but without shoes. "When she would leave camp, he would take her shoes," Harvey said, "so she couldn’t go far and would always have to come back."