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Homeless Man Found Dead in Wooded Area of Tenleytown

By Sewell Chan

Reprinted with permission from Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive and The Washington Post.

A 46-year-old man was found dead Tuesday morning in the Tenleytown section of Northwest Washington in what police said might be the first death from hypothermia in the Washington area this season.

John J. Maher was found in the wooded northern tip of Glover-Archbold Park, near Wisconsin Avenue and Van Ness Street. There were empty liquor bottles about his body, police said, and he appeared to have died while asleep.

An autopsy was completed yesterday, but an attorney for the chief medical examiner's office said the cause and manner of Maher's death have not been conclusively determined. About 10 chronically homeless adults have died in the cold in the past three winters in the District, where the region's street homeless are concentrated.

City officials said they have intensified their efforts to bring people indoors during freezing weather. Today, they are scheduled to announce the opening of a homeless facility in a converted warehouse on New York Avenue NE.

Maher, described as cheerful and friendly, with a quick smile that flashed easily from under his tousled red hair, was a familiar figure to groups that serve homeless people in upper Northwest Washington. He knew where to go to shower, to do his laundry and to obtain a warm lunch. But as much as possible, he avoided shelters, preferring an unfettered life outdoors, social service workers said.

Maher, a former student at Wheaton High School in Montgomery County, where he was interested in photography, became homeless as a teenager, according to Jean Duff, a board member at the Community Council for the Homeless at Friendship Place, a nonprofit agency that provided outreach and case management services to him.

Maher was diagnosed with chronic alcoholism and an unspecified psychotic disorder and was briefly admitted to St. Elizabeths Hospital in August 1996 and September 2000, according to those familiar with his history in the city's mental health system. They said the D.C. Department of Mental Health stopped serving Maher in 2001.

A department spokeswoman declined to comment, as did officials at Psychotherapeutic Services Inc., a company based in Chestertown, Md., that receives city funding and had been helping Maher get treatment.

Between 1996 and 1999, Maher was convicted in Arlington in multiple cases of drinking in public and trespassing, court records show. Since 1999, he had been arrested several times in the District on various misdemeanors.

Staff members at Friendship Place said they were devastated by Maher's death. Willa Bay Morris, a social worker who consults for the group, said she cried after hearing the news. "He always remembered everybody's name," she recalled. "He'd ask after their families. If he thought you had a nice coat on, he'd comment on it."

Mandrake Sumners, an outreach worker, described Maher as "probably the most upbeat guy I ever met," but he added that Maher resisted his repeated efforts to persuade him to enter a shelter.

Starting early last year, Maher lived for about six months in a small shelter at St. Luke's United Methodist Church. From February to October this year, after the agency helped Maher obtain Social Security benefits, he stayed at a hotel in Foggy Bottom. In November, he spent six days in the city-run detoxification unit on the grounds of D.C. General Hospital, but he declined to continue his treatment.

Duff recalled that Maher was proud of his Irish heritage and kept in close touch with his mother, Margaret, who had moved to Dublin. With help from Friendship Place, Maher regularly wrote to his mother. He even sent her fruitcakes.

Homeless people with mental illness and substance abuse problems, such as Maher, have almost no access to "low-barrier" shelters that admit people without requiring them to demonstrate sobriety and follow rules, according to advocates for the homeless. In December 2002, the city opened a sobering station for the homeless in Building 12 of D.C. General Hospital. It served 243 people from December to March. The center reopened Nov. 8 for the five-month "hypothermia season."

Copyright 2004, Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive and The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved. http://www.washingtonpost.com.

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