A makeshift cross was placed at the spot where Victor, a homeless man, was found dead in an alley behind the Kum & Go at South Kimbrough Avenue and East Elm Street. According to a friend of the man, the body lay undiscovered for approximately 12 hours. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

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News of an unsheltered man’s death — an immigrant from Ukraine who’d been a familiar face in downtown Springfield for years — spread on social media Sunday, starting with a Facebook post from a longtime advocate and volunteer for the homeless.

“We lost my friend Victor yesterday,” Rebekah Lee with Gathering Friends wrote about the death of Victor Fedchuk, whose body was found in the alley behind the Kum & Go at the intersection of Elm Street and Kimbrough Avenue on Saturday. “Those who knew Victor are thankful he doesn’t have to spend another winter outside.”

Gathering Friends is a grassroots group of volunteers and advocates who befriend and help the unsheltered community in Springfield.

In this undated photo Rebekah Lee and Victor Fedchuk share a happy moment. Fedchuk was found dead outside a Kum & Go in downtown Springfield. (Photo by Rebekah Lee)

In her Facebook tribute to Fedchuck, Lee described Fedchuk as a “beautiful fascinating man” and “one of the most miserably unpleasant men I’ve ever known the last couple of years because of the amount of pain he was in daily.”

Despite his sometimes “miserably unpleasant” personality, Lee refused to give up on Fedchuk and the two became close friends.

“Over the years, attempts were made to help him but always Victor would put up the walls to stop it,” Lee wrote. “But that doesn’t mean you leave that person. I met Victor where he was …” 

Lee’s post was shared by about 100 people on Sunday, many of whom did not know Fedchuk but were saddened by how Fedchuk’s body had been there for hours and likely viewed by many.

According to Lee, who arrived at the scene before the medical examiner, anyone driving on Kimbrough Avenue Saturday near the Missouri State University campus could have observed Fedchuk. He died in a sitting position, leaning against the red brick building next to the gas station. Lee estimated Fedchuk had been dead in that spot for several hours.

“I’m sorry you died that way, Victor,” Lee wrote in her post. 

Lee, and fellow members of Gathering Friends, Katrin Scott-Herd and Ed Rittenhouse, as well as a few police officers, did their best to shield Fedchuk’s body from passersby until the medical examiner arrived.

Cris Swaters, spokesperson for the Springfield Police Department said officers found “no suspicious circumstances.”

Victor, a 50+ year old homeless man was found dead leaning against the Well building in this alley behind a Kum & Go at Kimbrough and Elm Street. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Lee, who often drove Fedchuk to medical appointments, said Fedchuk had been in terrible health for some time. He’d been diagnosed with serious heart failure a month or so ago. 

In a phone interview Monday, Lee said she thinks his heart function was at about 10 percent in the days leading up to his death.

“It was really bad,” Lee said. 

According to Lee, Fedchuk was about 55 when he died. Fedchuk has relatives in the area, but Lee said she isn’t sure if a memorial service is being planned.

The Springfield Daily Citizen could not find an obituary on Monday.

Strangers, friends take to social media with tributes

Tami Reed is a longtime member of Gathering Friends. She shared Lee’s post.

“Will miss my Russian friend, his stories and his beliefs of who I was and what was my real calling,” Reed wrote. “While I will miss Victor and some of his unforgettable features, I know he is in the ultimate glory of God. His cries to pass over, to be rid of his pain, were heard.”

Keriley May lives near where Fedchuk’s body was found. She also shared Lee’s post.

“This happened right by my house, not only that but I’ve had a few encounters with this man and saw him almost everyday at the park by my house so seeing this kind of weighs heavy on my heart right now. Prayers for him and his family,” May wrote. “May you rest a little easier and more peaceful now.”

This is Victor Fedchuk. (Photo by Rebekah Lee)

Katrin Scott-Herd, who stayed with Fedchuk’s body for hours and then helped Lee pick up his belongings, wrote this:

“It would do Victor a huge disservice to share anything other than Rebekah’s true words here. She was definitely his person. Last night was heartbreaking and like she said- surreal. When it was all done I felt like I melted. But most importantly Rebekah and I were there for him till the end. I’m sure his spirit with its Russian accent was telling us all we were doing wrong while we tried to neatly fold his belongings with dignity and identify trash from treasure as Victor would. We cleaned up all the things around and left it like there hadn’t been a police scene there literally all day long and we went on to do what we do while fighting back tears. And this is why we Gather.”

Facebook user Michael Nelson wrote, “Some stories you wish you could’ve done more. We sometimes forget it’s the difference between life and death. I got the chance to know and minister to Victor. Prior to that I even ran the streets with him for a while. He was a really great guy and is a shame he never stepped out of the darkness. What a heartbreaking way to pass. Rest in peace Victor. No more pain. No more sorrow.”


Longtime columnist took interest in unsheltered man

Mike O’Brien, a contributor to the Springfield Daily Citizen and a former Springfield News-Leader columnist, also shared Lee’s Facebook post along with some of his own memories of Fedchuk.

O’Brien recalled spotting Fedchuk back in 2020 as he pushed a bike loaded with Fedchuk’s belongings in the rain. O’Brien snapped a photo of Fedchuk from behind. 

The longtime journalist said he was haunted by the image so he tracked Fedchuk down and kept up with the unsheltered man for a few months. 

The following is what O’Brien wrote in 2020:

His name is Victor.

He has a last name, too. I knew neither when I hastily snapped a photo and wrote about him in a September post after seeing him plod determinedly through an early morning rain with his belongings lashed to a bicycle. However, I’m going to leave it as just Victor for now.

Victor is 50 years old, with a burly build, gray beard and weathered complexion. He was in his late teens when he emigrated from Ukraine to Washington State in 1989 with the help of a church group that obtained visas for his parents, his sister, four brothers and himself.

Photo of unsheltered man pushing a bike in the rain
Columnist and journalist Mike O’Brien snapped this photo of Victor Fedchuk in 2020. O’Brien was so haunted by the image that O’Brien tracked Fedchuk down, got to know the unsheltered man and then wrote about him. Fedchuk was found dead in an alley on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023. (Photo by Mike O’Brien.)

“I was too old to go to school,” he told me. “I learned to speak English by watching movies. I can read but I can’t write English. I tried to get a GED degree, but I couldn’t pass.”

For their first years in the U.S., Victor helped his father in an arborist service that specialized in trimming or removing large trees that overhung buildings that could be damaged by falling limbs. Their techniques involved climbing to dizzying heights and skillfully using ropes to direct severed branches and trunks to gentle landings. It’s a dangerous job — and a work accident in 1996 claimed the life of Victor’s dad.

Along with his mother and siblings, Victor relocated to the Ozarks. He worked in construction, as a roofer and repairing mobile homes.

But his life began to unravel.

“I hurt my back working in a warehouse,” he said. “My knees are wore out. And there is something growing inside me near my kidneys. But the worst is my memory problems…”

Victor explained that in recent years he has suffered short-term memory loss. It makes it almost impossible to hold even jobs that don’t require heavy physical labor. For instance, when he got hired at a fast-food restaurant, the manager explained the duties that Victor was expected to carry out. “But a few minutes later I’d forgotten what the boss had told me. So I wasn’t doing everything that I was supposed to do. And the boss said, ‘I’m sorry, but you can’t work here.’”

Since then he’s been unable to pay the fee to renew his “green card,” the federal permit that allows him to legally work in the U.S.

Victor is a father and grandfather. But his wife lives in another state, his mom has passed away, and he has become estranged from many of his local relatives. He had a small apartment for a while, but he had to move out because he couldn’t pay the rent. He’s lived on the street much of the past decade.

He spends nights with a half-dozen friends under a midtown bridge.

Victor has struck an informal deal with the manager of a nearby professional building. “That boss came out one morning and said, ‘I don’t mind you guys staying here at night, but just clean up the place in the morning.’ So every day I sweep up cigarette butts and any other trash first thing. We need the place to stay.” Victor and his friends carry away their belongings during the daytime, then return after business hours and set up an overnight camp.

Victor said he seldom goes hungry, thanks to food stamps plus meals, snacks and other assistance provided by local social agencies, churches and other concerned organizations and individuals.

He spends most days visiting with fellow travelers. “I have lots of friends, good friends,” he said, nodding for emphasis.

I asked how he deals with cold weather, and his answer surprised me:

“In wintertime, when I get cold I just put on more clothes and wear a warm coat. When it gets really bad cold, I can go to one of the shelters. Summertime is a lot worse than winter. Even if you took off all your clothes, you’d still be hot. I sweat a lot. It’s hard to stay clean. I wash or take a shower whenever I can, but it’s not easy to stay clean in summer.”

I was led to Victor a couple of weeks after my original post prompted inquisitive comments. We were scheduled to meet one morning outside the Veterans Coming Home Center on North Jefferson Avenue. When he showed up a few minutes late, he said he’d gone to nearby Central High School to check on a friend who sometimes spends nights in an outdoor nook. “I wanted to make sure he was up. It’s a school day, and I didn’t want him to still be sleeping when the kids started getting there.”

Victor was hoping to meet up later that day with another friend who’d offered to swap Victor a cart in which to carry his possessions in trade for the bicycle. “I have to lean to the side when I push the bike, and that hurts my back. I’ll be able to stand up straight to push the cart.”

Victor’s cargo includes a few spare clothes, blankets and a tarp he uses at night to ward off the cold, and a few utensils. It’s everything he owns — except for some toys he’s been able to buy as gifts for his grandchildren. He keeps those in a rented locker.

I debated for more than a month whether to post this followup. Victor was willing to visit, but he declined to allow me to take a photograph that showed his face. “My grandkids might see it, and I don’t want to embarrass them,” he explained. So I’ve decided to not publish his family name, either.

I asked if he would be insulted by an offer of a bit of money. He said he would appreciate it because he needed to buy a sleeping bag to augment the blankets as winter approaches. Otherwise, he assured, he’s pretty well set — or at least resigned to get by with what he has.

“I don’t need much,” Victor said. “Just friends. I need my friends.”

Jackie Rehwald

Jackie Rehwald is a reporter at the Springfield Daily Citizen. She covers public safety, the courts, homelessness, domestic violence and other social issues. Her office line is 417-837-3659. More by Jackie Rehwald