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Dying Homeless in Chattanooga

Times Free Press / John Rawiston

Dying Homeless in Chattanooga

Ron Fender with Howard Baugh's possessions (Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press)
Ron Fender with Howard Baugh’s possessions
(Angela Lewis | Chattanooga Times Free Press)

In Chattanooga, even those with no one else have Brother Ron Fender. The social worker knows them in life and helps wrap up their affairs after death – and throughout, he cares for them.

In her article From homelessness in Chattanooga to the grave Kate Harrison of the Chattanooga Times Free Press shares the stories of Howard Glen Baugh and Iris Clemons to illustrate what happens when homeless folks die. In some cities, it might not be quite the same, but the homeless who die in Chattanooga are treated with dignity, thanks to Fender.

Baugh’s possessions were given to Fender, who was listed as his next of kin. As Fender spread them on a table to be catalogued, he discussed Baugh – who he kept supplied with guitar strings.

“Formally, Baugh was labeled ‘homeless’ at his death. But as Fender unpacks Baugh’s old blue backpack, that’s not the label he uses to describe the man. Glen was a guitar player. A veteran.”

Harrison goes on to describe Clemons’ funeral. Not the lightly-attended graveside service you might expect – “the little church bus heading to Iris Clemons’ graveside funeral is full.” At the service, “sobbing, the small group breaks into a ragged rendition of the hymn ‘Do Not Pass Me By’ before the service wraps up.”

Brother Fender worked hard to find both Baugh’s and Clemons’ families after their deaths, and he ultimately succeeded.

Edward Brandenburg (Chattanooga Times Free Press)
Edward Brandenburg
(Chattanooga Times Free Press)

Another article by Harrison, Son’s search for his long-lost father ends in Chattanooga, is the equivalent of an obituary for Edward Brandenburg, an alcoholic who reportedly stayed away from his family in Michigan because he did not want to be an embarrassment to them.

His son, Josh, whom he last saw when the boy was 13, tried to find him off and on for 16 years.

After Brandenburg was found dead, Fender visited his tent. He “lay down in the tent for a few minutes, allowing the first waves of grief to wash over him. Then he set about gathering a tree saw, a pair of pliers, a flathead screwdriver, a pocketknife and a little leather pouch filled with wheat pennies.”

In an Internet search a year later, Brandenburg’s then 29-year-old son found his father’s name listed on a Chattanooga Community Kitchen bulletin for an annual service to commemorate homeless people who have died.

Fender was able to talk to the young man about his father, the man who Fender considered a friend. “Before the day was over, Fender handed Josh his inheritance: Edward’s saw, pliers, screwdriver, knife and pennies. Josh cradled them in his hands.”

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This post was contributed by Alana Baranick, a freelance obituary writer. She was the director of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers and chief author of Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers before she passed away in 2015.