Forever Unseen

The tragic death of an unhoused woman in Eugene raises questions about how the deaths of those on the streets are tracked

A woman was killed while sleeping in a parking lot during the early hours of Monday, Aug. 26. According to a series of Eugene Police Department press releases, a Sanipac garbage truck was seen in video footage in the alley between Willamette and Oak streets when it ran over Annette Lorraine Montero, 57, of San Leandro, California.

Montero was reportedly unhoused. It’s unclear just how many of Lane County’s homeless have died on the streets.

No charges have been filed against the driver, Todd Andrew Baker, 53, of Springfield, as of press time.

Montero had spent her last day mostly wandering the parking lots around First Christian Church, near where her body was found. Pastor Dan Bryant described what little was known of her activities that day — mainly gleaned through video footage and secondhand accounts of brief interactions — in a Facebook post that has since been shared more than 1,200 times.

In his post, Bryant described Montero as somewhat distant and often just “staring into the distance and hardly moving.” In a subsequent interview with Eugene Weekly, Bryant adds, “When you aren’t getting any sleep, people tend to act that way.”

EW sought records from various Lane County agencies on the number of deaths among unhoused individuals in the county. EW’s investigation revealed that this particular information is not reliably tracked or readily accessible.

EW also reached out to community advocates for the unhoused as well as funeral homes with which the county contracts, but again were unable to establish a reliable figure.

Lane County Health and Human Services (HHS) public information officer Jason Davis says HHS attempts to identify when unhoused people have stopped using services due to death but doesn’t report on annual numbers if they are fewer than 10. He says last year there were exactly 10 instances when a person was determined to have stopped using services due to death, and three were unhoused at the time of their deaths.

That number, however, is extremely low compared to orher accounts.

Brenda Kosydar, a homeless case manager for White Bird Clinic, says so far this year she has counted 12 deaths, not including Montero, just among unhoused individuals she is aware of. Eric Jackson, who is unhoused and has been staging protest camps over the last year, says he is aware of at least six deaths among the unhoused.

Kelsie Drake, apprentice funeral director for Major Family Funeral Home — one of the homes the county contracts with to process the remains of so-called “indigent” people — says it processes 20 to 30 bodies a year. She adds the county rotates those contracts among the 20 area funeral homes, and contracts typically last just two months.

But without clear data, it’s nearly impossible to know or even estimate just how many unhoused people are dying on Lane County’s streets each year. While high-profile tragedies like Montero’s death generate attention, the vast majority of deaths among the unhoused go unnoticed.

Multnomah County Commission Chair Deborah Kafoury says that in 2010 that county recognized a need to track such information, and implemented a data point it terms “domicile unknown.”

Since then Multnomah, in conjunction with the publication Street Roots, has produced an annual report with the same title detailing deaths among the unhoused. The 2017 report notes 79 deaths among Multnomah’s unhoused population that year. Since Multnomah began tracking in 2010, it has recorded 438 deaths.

Multnomah County Health Officer Paul Lewis says the report has been valuable in bringing more attention to not only the problem of homelessness, but also to the dangers associated with living on the streets.

“You don’t have to have a very good imagination to think of the health problems you get from living outside,” he says. “Or if you get some kind of health problem, how impossible it would be to take care of yourself — plus the despair, the suicide, the violence. It seems kind of obvious, but we’d like to think the report focuses attention.”

Davis says there are a number of obstacles Lane County faces in tracking deaths among the unhoused, including coordinating agencies’ efforts and being able to identify deceased unhoused — a process hampered by bureaucracy and the fact Lane County currently has a policy that all death certificates must include a place of residence.

Additionally, many of those unhoused who have an ID list addresses of public buildings and service organizations.

“Where we’re at right now is how we can get all the interested parties — Lane County Medical Examiner, Lane County Public Health, our funeral homes and morgues and then our Human Services division — to all work together,” Davis says. “We need this information. It’s going to be imperative moving forward to keep those individuals who are on the street safe.”

Asked where exactly the county is in the process, he says it is “realizing we have a problem.”

Lane County Commissioner Pat Farr, who helped spearhead the Operation 365 program in 2015 that has housed more than 400 veterans in the community, says he is “all for that” with respect to learning from and sharing information with Multnomah County on addressing homelessness issues.

“If Multnomah County has found a way to more accurately keep track of that information, it would be interesting for us to find that out. If there’s anything we could do or could emulate, we should do it,” he says. Farr also adds Kafoury and other Multnomah commissioners have expressed interest in observing some of Lane County’s facilities, in turn.

But Farr says incomplete or inaccurate data could lead to misinformed policy decisions. Multnomah’s figures on deaths among the unhoused are conservatively understated, Lewis notes, and the data are rigorously examined at multiple levels for just that reason.

Farr and Kafoury both took pains to note that while Multnomah County’s efforts to track deaths among the unhoused are worthwhile, Multnomah is the exception, and not the rule, among Oregon counties.

Kosydar with White Bird says Eugene once held vigils at the WOW Hall to honor deaths of the unhoused, and says she would like to bring back the event this year, adding there needs to be more clarity on homeless deaths in the community.

“One bad choice, or one catastrophic event, and it could be any of us dead out there on the street,” she says. “It can happen to anybody.”

Pastor Bryant says situations which lead to death, such as with Montero, are avoidable but society continues to create conditions leading to homlessness and death.

“The majority of folks who are homeless are victims,” he says. “And this story just really illustrates that. [Montero] was sleeping. She was not any problem to anyone here. She was hungry so we provided her with something to eat but otherwise she just needed a safe place to sleep.”

He adds, “We as a community have not figured out how to provide for some 1,500 to 2,000 individuals on any given night who don’t have a safe place to sleep. It’s a huge, huge challenge.”