It was December, near Christmas and the longest night of the year — Winter Solstice, Dec. 21.
For the homeless person in a car or in a sleeping bag or in a tent, it was another frigid and lonely night with snow, ice and rain in the immediate forecast. The weather is the homeless person’s most immediate obstacle, and there’s little escaping its effects in the winter except for the low-barrier facilities that serve as the Egan Warming Center.
For weather-related and other reasons, not everyone makes it. Some die, rarely making the news, and with a heart-wrenching void left behind that is keenly felt by only a few. Eugene Weekly has tried to fill that void, to give flesh and character in obituaries to men and women who were known, if at all, only as part of a grim category; that is difficult work with its own obstacles.
It was with these men and women in mind that the Eugene Human Rights Commission’s Homelessness and Poverty Workgroup hosted the annual candlelight vigil on Dec. 21. Known nationally as Homeless Persons’ Remembrance Day, it is held every year on the Winter Solstice.
This year’s event in Eugene was at the downtown Park Blocks in front of an estimated 50 hearty souls who braved the bitter cold. They came to remember and lend grace to the names of the homeless men and women who we know died in Lane County in 2022 and to give friends and family an opportunity to share the grief of that loss.
Statements were read on behalf of the Homelessness and Poverty Workgroup, Egan Warming Center and by Mayor Lucy Vinis, who read a statement on behalf of the city of Eugene.
Vinis read the names, 18 in all. Some are familiar to EW readers who have kept up with our efforts to write their obituaries. Others were listed only by their first names. All had stories that needed to be told.
Yet the obstacles that surround the reporting of these deaths are such that even the Oregon Health Authority concedes that 18 deaths of homeless people in Lane County this year is nowhere near an accurate number. On its website, OHA counts 57 deaths of unhoused men and women through October 2022.
This year, a new law took effect that requires death reports to disclose the housing status of the deceased, including the homeless. Listing “domicile unknown” on a death certificate will make communities across the state more aware of the number of unhoused individuals dying on the streets, though EW noted when the law took effect that media outlets will not be notified when a homeless person dies.
OHA, in an email exchange with the Homelessness and Poverty Workgroup, noted that “Death records in Oregon are confidential, and only immediate family members and legal representatives are eligible to receive the information. This applies to the list of names as well.”
In this enormous humanitarian crisis we face, it seems that the final indignity the homeless face is that, in death, they simply disappear.
Another indignity the homeless face is the sweeps of camps or of solitary encampments, and that was on the minds of the group Black Thistle Street Aid, which held a large sign throughout the program that read “Sweeps Kill.”
Heather Merek of the Homelessness and Poverty Workgroup acknowledged the sign and received the loudest applause of the evening when she declared “Housing, not handcuffs” is the solution. Vinis had a back and forth exchange with the people who held the sign during her statement as well, though that was more uncomfortable. Still, she got through it and read the 18 names.
A bell rang out for every name. It was a small gesture that lent grace and honor to the men and women.
More needs to be done for the living.
The following is the list of 18 homeless men and women who are known to have died in Lane County in 2022. EW wishes to thank Black Thistle Street Aid for its help in getting some of these names. Also, EW adds Michael Cole Chetwood to the list. Formerly homeless, Chetwood died Sept. 1 at The Nel, a permanent, supportive and affordable housing community for people experiencing homelessness. If you are aware of a person who died homeless in Lane County in 2022 who is not on this list, please email Editor@EugeneWeekly.com.
Amber Joann Mark
Anika Bliss Jameson
Bret Harris Matsutaro
Michael Cole Chetwood