Homeless Man's Death Haunts Washington


He didn't push a shopping cart, or jangle a cup of change, or wipe car windows with a dirty rag. The middle-aged man who squatted silently in front of our office building was easy to pass by.

Then suddenly the patch of sidewalk where he kept his bedroll was empty. And word passed through the glass and marble tower at 2021 K St. that The Homeless Man--a few knew him as "Mike"--was dead.

His absence was haunting. In death, Mike received more attention and emotion than he had in life.

Many of the journalists and doctors and secretaries who had walked past this man every day for months began to talk about him--wondering who he was, remembering the slightest contact with him, voicing regret that they hadn't done more for him.

"You never realize something was special until it's gone," said Jeff Smith, a receptionist for the Multiple Sclerosis Society who had befriended Mike.

"Mike makes you realize that everyone is special, and at some point you have to care and do what you can," he said.

Mike showed up on K Street about three years ago, spending cold winter days inside a sandwich shop and sleeping wherever he could get out of the wind or rain. Once he and some other homeless men were forced away from the door at 2021 K because of tenants' complaints.

Last spring he settled into a corner of the building's front alcove.

Day and night he stayed there, unassuming and watchful.

Most people walked by without speaking to Mike, but he made a few friends. They stopped to chat and brought him coffee or cigarettes or money.

The woman who runs the hot dog stand out front trusted Mike to watch her goods when she took short breaks. A delivery man--stung recently by a robbery--was reassured when Mike began standing protectively by his truck.

"I saw that people had kind of adopted him, and I said I'm not going to bother him, he can stay because he's not bothering anybody," said Al Johnson, the building's chief engineer.

Even his friends knew little about him: He was a Vietnam veteran from Pennsylvania. He had a raspy voice and a sly smile. He liked pizza. He especially liked brownies from the coffeehouse down the street.

He also was Catholic and carried a rosary. He said he occasionally shoplifted food from the Safeway around the corner.

He also loved a good bargain. He never asked strangers for money. He kept his graying beard trim. He noticed everything.

"He liked to talk about whatever I was wearing," said Katherine Rizzo, an Associated Press reporter.

"He would always find something to touch--just the corner of a hem--never in a threatening way, but just that little bit of contact," Rizzo added.

He was dignified, and reluctant to accept charity.

One woman tried to give Mike a sweater but he rejected it--saying it was too large. He did, however, accept a jacket and T-shirts from others.

Some people talked to Mike about finding a shelter bed or other help to get off the street.

"I don't think he had any interest," said Bobby Nelson, whose family owns a bookstore in the office building.

The weather was just turning chilly again when, in the early afternoon of Nov. 8, Mike began coughing up blood and collapsed on the sidewalk. The medical examiner's office said he died of a heart attack.

He might have died a John Doe. But only three days earlier, Mike had trusted his friend Smith with precious information: his mother's name, telephone number and address in Shamokin, Pa.

"He wanted me to call his mother and let her know he was OK," Smith said.

"I was going to call her the Monday that he died."

Instead, Smith gave the number to the chief engineer, who notified the police and called Mike's mother, Philomena Koback, to say that her son was dead.

Mrs. Koback had not seen her only son since he left her home 10 years ago. She had hoped he would come live with her again.

"His nerves were very bad ever since he came back from Vietnam," she said.

"He just wasn't the same."

The morning after he died, someone left a red rose in Mike's sidewalk corner.

More flowers followed, and cups of coffee.

Nelson overheard people talking about how much they missed Mike and decided there should be a memorial.

With information from Mike's mother, a service was planned by David R. Quammen, a homeless advocate who sometimes worked in the Nelsons' bookstore. He also took donations to help pay for Mike's burial.

"Whether or not he was homeless, he needs to be remembered for who he was and what he did," Quammen said.

A week ago Friday, on the sidewalk where Mike lived, about 50 people who work at 2021 K joined in prayer and song as traffic rumbled past.

Quammen told Mike's story: His name was Michael Edward Shiko, 47. He joined the Army right after graduating from high school in Shamokin and rose to sergeant in a transportation battalion in Vietnam. After the war, Mike was admitted to Veterans Administration hospitals several times for psychological care.

He tried trucking and other short-lived jobs, but he no longer fit into civilian life.

Once he was prescribed medication that seemed to help, but then he suddenly left town. He apparently feared becoming a burden to his mother, who is now 68.

Over the years, Mrs. Koback received only a few telephone calls from Mike.

Several times he urged her to visit the Vietnam Memorial--the long wall listing the names of the dead. He said it gave him comfort.

She planned a trip to the wall but canceled it when Mike's stepfather, Marlin Koback, was hospitalized.

Marlin Koback was still ill when word of Mike's death came, and he died Nov. 13--the same day Mass was said for Mike in his hometown.

Mike's ashes were buried next to his stepfather.

"Every day, people walked by here. What did they see?" the Rev. William Wendt asked those gathered at the sidewalk service in Washington.

"Did they see just another homeless, sad man?

"Did they see somebody who had a name, who was a veteran, who had given time and love to his country?"

Wendt urged mourners to do more next time: "Whenever you see a homeless person, think of Mike."

Another man, one who wears an Army jacket, now sleeps nights in Mike's alcove.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World