The road for Mark Sheldon ended in a patch of woods not far from the busy apartments, offices and shops along the U.S. 15-501 corridor at the Durham-Orange county line.
Sheldon, 57, a Florida native, died in September in the tent that he called home. He was one of 10 homeless people – some in recovery – who died in Orange County this year and were remembered at a Dec. 21 observance of the 25th annual National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day.
Durham and Raleigh have held similar events in recent years – on the longest night of the year – to raise public awareness of homelessness and its effects. It’s a time to remember residents’ lives and stories, said Michael Reinke, executive director of the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service.
“They are people who were alive or wonderful in their own way,” Reinke said. “They certainly had faults, like all of us do, but my concern is that the people and their stories oftentimes disappear if we don’t remember them.”
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Sheldon’s story was filled with trauma and frustration, his sister Cathy Ciullo said. As the youngest of six, he was hit especially hard when their father died in 1963, she said. Things started looking up after high school in Florida, when Sheldon started his own family and a painting business.
“When we were in our 20s and young and married and raising our kids; he was happy then,” Ciullo said. But Sheldon became a “severe alcoholic” and started pulling away from family, including his five children. Their mother’s funeral in 1998 was one of their last visits, she said.
In 2009, Sheldon, who was living in Statesville, lost his business to the recession. It was among a string of losses, Ciullo said, including the deaths of two children in addiction-related incidents and a close nephew’s suicide.
Sheldon put his belongings in an old Buick and drove to Durham, he told UNC graduate student Lauren Frohne for a 2009 video project, Frohne’s master’s thesis. He took construction jobs and panhandled, drinking – and occasionally taking drugs – to ease the pain, he said.
“I’m worried about next week,” he told Frohne. “This homeless thing, it can kind of take over on you, especially because of the alcohol. You get to the point where you just don’t give a damn anymore.”
The video was upsetting, Ciullo said, and a reminder of Sheldon’s calls asking for money instead of help.
“When I saw that, it was just heartbreaking that all these years have passed and the cycle was still the same,” she said. “I called Lauren to tell her that there was a family behind that. That he had love and he had people that cared. He was not alone.”
Volunteers from Durham’s Open Table Ministry found Sheldon’s body in September, alone in his tent in the woods.
While there is no official count of how many homeless people die each year, the risk is four to nine times higher than for the general public, the Centers for Disease Control reports. The average age of death is between 45 and 50 years old.
The risk also is higher for infectious or chronic diseases, mental health problems, substance abuse and violent crime, the CDC reports
At least 1,800 Triangle residents were living outside or in a homeless or transitional shelter on Jan. 28, according to the national Point in Time Count, an annual snapshot of the nation’s homeless and chronically homeless population.
Chronic homelessness is defined as single adults with substance, mental or medical health issues who have been homeless for at least a year or at least four different times in three years. They can be the most difficult to help, because they face multiple roadblocks to stability, advocates say.
Roughly a third of the 10,863 homeless people counted across the state this year were adults with children, and about 13 percent were chronically homeless. Eleven percent reported fleeing domestic violence, while 17 percent had a serious mental illness and 22 percent had a substance abuse problem. Most were found in shelters and transitional housing.
The count reflects a small part of the need, officials say, but it also shows the numbers are shrinking. There were 11,440 homeless people statewide in 2014, according to the N.C. Coalition to End Homelessness, compared with 13,602 in 2012.
Sheldon came from a good family, Ciullo said, and she hopes his life shows how anyone can become homeless.
“Maybe if it helps one person, maybe if it helps one family, maybe if it changes one thing, it’s all worth it,” she said.
During the last week of January, the partnerships to end homelessness across the Triangle will conduct another survey of the numbers of homeless people in the region.