ST. AUGUSTINE, Florida — He was known around town as the friendly homeless man who would happily chat about anything — the weather, sports or whatever passersby wanted to talk about. But when John Meade died in St. Augustine, Florida, late last year, police realized he had rarely talked about himself. They had no one to call to deliver the news.
He “never bothered anybody. He never asked for anything,” St. Augustine police officer Steven Fischer told CNN. “You could sit and talk with him for an hour or 10 minutes. It didn’t matter to John. He was just there.”
Fischer was assigned to track down the man’s family. He searched for hours, but ultimately came up short — there was no family record to be found.
He did discover one piece of information: John Meade served in the US Army from 1966 to 1968. And a veteran, Fischer said, deserved to be recognized for his service with a proper burial.
“I contacted our local VA chapter here. I gave them all of John’s information and they were able to confirm that he was an honorably discharged veteran,” Fischer said. “Getting him in a national cemetery with military honors is the least that I could do for him. He served our country and he did it well.”
The police officer then set out to work with the local veterans organization and give Meade a full honors burial. They invited the public to join.
It happens far too often
Meade’s story is just one of hundreds involving veterans who have died without any family to send them off with a final salute.
The Dignity Memorial Homeless Veterans Burial Program is a joint effort by funeral homes and the US Department of Veterans Affairs that aims to provide burial services for homeless veterans, according to its website. It’s coordinated more than 1,700.
In 2019, there were 37,085 veterans living on the streets, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In addition to the lack of affordable housing and a livable income that affects all homeless people, veterans have to live with the “lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse, compounded by a lack of family and social support networks,” according to WeHonorVeterans.org.
All of these factors can cause those who once stood as our nation’s heroes to end up on the street.
The final salute
Meade’s service was held at the Jacksonville National Cemetery on January 17. Dozens came to pay their respects, including fellow veterans from across northeast Florida, according to The St. Augustine Record newspaper.
“We know little of John’s life, but we know that his days in St. Augustine touched the lives of many,” Ray Quinn, vice chairman of the St. Johns County Veterans Council, said at the service, according to the Record. “We here today, we represent John’s family.”