When someone dies in our shelter?

Dear Ryan,

I work at a homeless shelter. Do you have any advice regarding the death of clients in a shelter? We have had 3 in the past month. I know it is part of the job, but I would like to better support my staff as well as our guests.



Unfortunately, that is something I am very familiar with. I have been to countless funerals.

Here is what we do at our shelter:

  • If the person passes away onsite, we make sure that the coroner treats the body with respect. They oftentimes are de-sensitized to death (e.g. dragging a body bag down a flight of stairs in front of other residents).
  • We announce who passed at dinner.
  • We print a little announcement with their picture and put it up on the wall for residents to see.
  • We send an email (with picture) to the whole staff along with a little bit of information about them. Oftentimes, the obituary includes information from the family that we didn’t know about the person.
  • If the person was a resident for a long time, we’ll do a short service for them onsite.
  • If the family holds a service in the area, we’ll help staff and residents to attend.
  • If the death was under unusual circumstances (homicide or suicide), we bring in counselors for staff and residents.
  • On December 20 (the longest night of the year), we do a memorial service for everyone that passed that year. We have a picture of everyone and light a candle for each person.

The most important thing you can do, though, is to help the staff reconnect with their mission:

Remind your staff that they did not “fail” the person.

Their job is to walk alongside people on their journey “home.”

Sometimes that is a physical apartment and sometimes it is more eternal.

While is more pleasant to help someone get a job and a home and live happily ever after, I believe that accompanying a person to the end of their life is a holy obligation.

We cannot control how someone’s story ends.

We can, though, do everything in our power to ensure it ends with basic human dignity. That is every bit as important as helping people get rehoused… or perhaps even more so.

Every time someone passes away from our shelter, I am reminded that each interaction we have with a person may be their last. It helps to cut through the day-to-day annoyances and reconnect me with the higher calling.

The work you do is not easy, but it is VERY VERY important…



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