A eulogy for the forgotten homeless
A father and onetime Columbus civic activist reflects on the recent death of his son, who lived on the city’s margins
My name is likely unfamiliar to most readers, but years ago I was known in Columbus as “The Arena Slayer.” I led ragtag, David-and-Goliath battles that ultimately defeated sales tax measures to fund a convention center, arena and soccer stadium. (They were ultimately built, but without regressive sales taxes.) I was a single dad at the time, and I often had my young child at my side during community forums and media interviews.
About a week ago, that same child died with his dad at his side.
On April 19, Carson Sheir took his last breath at Riverside Hospital, the same place he was born 35 years ago. Years of grinding poverty and mental illness became a fatal combination for this young man from Clintonville who lived on the margins of society as an adult.
We don’t typically read obituaries for the homeless or near-homeless. Obituaries speak of connections to the broader community — where people worked, the interests they pursued. Carson, on the other hand, drifted in and out of homeless shelters and lived in the woods. Perhaps a eulogy, then, is more appropriate.
For years, Carson grappled with significant mental issues that cast him from the mainstream. His life was tumultuous and distinctly different, though not always in a bad way. He was friendly to excess and overly attentive to the feelings of others. Like so many other Columbus guys, he took pleasure in talking about the Cleveland Browns and Buckeye football. A lifelong voracious reader, he was a fixture in local libraries. He knew a lot about a lot and had a keen, playful intellect, but he struggled to apply his many tools toward a positive purpose. Each and every day of Carson’s adult life, he struggled against the formidable twin foes of poverty and poor mental health.
There were so many joyous times in Carson’s kaleidoscope life, and there were times of total exasperation. It was part and parcel of the incredibly messy, fascinating Carson Andrew Sheir. He was a sloppy, talkative, hyper-friendly kid, like a real-life version of Charlie Brown sidekick Pig-Pen. And though he lived on the fringes, my son possessed strong values. He was honorable and compassionate. He lent money to friends he felt were even more in need. His everyday was a battle, the likes of which I can only imagine.
I interacted with Carson at the beginning, the end and all of the endearing, maddening points in between. Though we lived distant (I’m now in Vermont), we maintained constant phone contact over the years. (I still got an earful about a defensive penalty in a Buckeye game.) In what would be the final week of his life, Carson’s health grew worse. The day before he died, he weakly begged me to come to Columbus, and when I learned of the sudden gravity of the situation, I drove overnight from Vermont to Riverside Hospital. Carson must have intuitively known how serious his condition had become. He wanted his dad there with him and for him — the dad who had been there through thick and thin, during the best and during the worst. He also knew what his father would do for him.
I formally requested that my son leave life support instead of, at best, requiring a breathing trachea that would take away his ability to speak and leave him tied to machines for the rest of his time. Carson was always hyper-alive; such a shadow existence would have been an unspeakable indignity. And so, in that very same hospital where his father held his hand when he was born, I held his hand when he breathed his last. Surrounded by modern medical equipment, I was unable to kiss my son before he went to sleep, a ritual so familiar to every parent. After he was gone, I instinctively tidied his hair as I had done countless times when he was a child.
A chaplain visited the room after Carson died, and I informed him that I had no doubts about the decision to take my son off life support. I was not acting as God. I was acting as a parent, and though it can be heartbreaking at times, a parent’s love is unconditional.
I am quite certain that many of Carson’s friends living on the margins have parents who love them as deeply as I loved my son. At the end, each of those lives are also worthy of a proper eulogy, so let this be theirs collectively. My sincere hope is that the plight of the homeless with mental illness will cease to be an abstraction. Instead, I want Carson Sheir to come to mind.