Photo by Robert Scherle

A Redeeming Flame In The Blight

A candlelight vigil on National Homeless Persons Memorial Day 

Sometimes it can be said that Eugene is dying of a rotted soul, consumed by shiny, materialistic high-rise apartment complexes and leaving the disenfranchised behind. 

Other times, I witness in wonder and awe at the city’s redeeming value, especially in individuals who embrace love and compassion.

And often, those conflicting storms can meet.

I was reminded of that on the chilly evening of Dec. 21 — the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year — at the Park Blocks in downtown Eugene when the Eugene Human Rights Commission’s Work Group on Poverty and Homelessness hosted a candlelight vigil for the National Homeless Persons Memorial Day.

There were food donations as well as contributions of socks, tents and sleeping bags. A half-dozen speakers noted the humanity of all the homeless people who died in Lane County in 2021. One speaker told of having met Ivory McCuen — whose story was the very first homeless obituary in Eugene Weekly in 2021 —  and a couple of speakers touched on the still sensitive deaths of friends or loved ones who died homeless in prior years.

It forever hurts.

Then there was the reading of the names, the reality of why upward of 100 people braved the damp chill on this night and attended the vigil.

There were 38 names in all, read aloud by Bridgette Butler, an outreach worker for Black Thistle Street Aid. The names included an “unknown man” who died in November of exposure at a bus stop on Hwy. 99.

There were also the names of people who, perhaps, had been on the streets long enough that they simply answered to their street names (“Kermit,” “Irish Paul” and “Jimbo”). There were two suicides, and at least one homeless man — Rodney Heckathorn, whose obituary also ran in EW — died during 2021’s record heat wave.

For all that is wrong with homelessness in Lane County, there is still the redeeming virtue of “a bunch of neighbors getting together” to help as best they can, says Nick Crump, an organizer with Egan Warming Center.

Oddly, temperatures had not reached low enough levels to activate Egan in 2021 until the snow and ice came on Dec. 26, but Crump emphasized that in 2020 (the dark days of the pandemic), Egan was able to house people at the Lane County Fairgrounds as well as places of worship. Also, a vacant St. Vincent de Paul store front on East 11th Avenue was opened for guests.

No one was turned away, Crump said.

“It’s just a human thing,” he said. “Nobody wants people to freeze to death on the streets.” 

It’s called love and compassion. ν