Evidence of huffing found in homeless man's demise

"There's hopelessness and despair"

A homeless man found dead a week ago had apparently been huffing, according to Springfield police reports.

In September, Ahmad Basheer Verdell became the face of homelessness in Springfield as he urged the city council to approve an east side homeless center on 11th Street that would also include a detox unit and services for substance abusers. The council approved the project, but it died when Mayor Jim Langfelder raised questions about the location, even though his staff helped find the building

Direct, emotional and eloquent, Verdell told the council that his wife had died, leaving him with five kids who’d gone into foster care. “I’m sober,” he said. “I’m drug free. I’m not a pedophile. I’m not a criminal. I’m a father who needs help.” He got a solid round of applause. “Thank you for telling us your life story,” the mayor said.

Last Friday, around lunchtime, passersby spotted Verdell behind the Walmart on North Dirksen Parkway, dead, with cans of compressed air commonly used to clean computer keyboards scattered around his corpse along with a Springfield Mass Transit District bus pass with his name and picture on it, according to a Springfield police report. Verdell was 47.

No cause of death has been established. Sangamon County Coroner Cinda Edwards has declined to release any details about her investigation other than Verdell’s body showed no signs of injury and that he didn’t succumb to hypothermia – it was 28 degrees when someone on his way to work spotted Verdell on the ground alongside pallets. In a press release, Edwards said that she expects to determine a cause of death when lab tests are complete, which could take as long as four weeks.

Verdell spoke for nearly eight minutes at the September city council meeting, telling aldermen that his mother-in-law died in 2016, then his wife died a few months later, on the birthday of one of his kids. "Dealing with grief is a tricky thing," he said. "I couldn't take care of myself, let alone five children."

Life on the streets, Verdell said, wasn't easy.

"There drugs, of course," he told the council. "There's violence, and there's always hopelessness and despair."

Erica Smith, executive director of Helping Hands, sent an electronic message out a week ago, shortly after Verdell's body was discovered, that was re-posted on the Facebook page of Ward 6 Ald. Kristin DiCenso on the day the body was found.

"My staff is grieving, as will the rest of the homeless community — and all those who provide services to our clients — when we tell them," wrote Erica Smith, who could not be immediately reached for comment. "The anger and the frustration we feel is equally as terrible."

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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