Eric Jackson. Photo by Keven Salazar.

Eric Jackson 1966-2023

The local homeless advocate was known for his big heart and for being a thorn in the side of the police and city

Ask anyone and they’ll tell you Pineapple had the biggest heart in Eugene. 

To friends and family, Pineapple’s selfless nature helped revive their faith in humanity and helped them see the world differently. 

To the authorities tasked with corralling and criminalizing the unhoused in Lane County, he was a constant headache that proved very difficult to make go away, placing himself at the center of the never-ending conflict over how to address homelessness in Eugene. 

Eric “Pineapple” Jackson — whose nickname derives from his trademark dreads that sprouted from his head like the top of a pineapple — died on the morning of Nov. 29 at PeaceHealth Riverbend. His sons, Max and Jake Jackson, said the cause was a perforated aorta stemming from life-saving heart surgery he received 15 days prior. He was 57.

“His heart was too big,” a former Democratic candidate for governor Patrick Starnes said at a small gathering and viewing of Jackson’s body on Nov. 30 at Andreason’s Cremation & Burial Service. 

Jackson was an entrepreneur, a marijuana enthusiast, a single father of two and a fearless advocate for people experiencing homelessness, partially because he’d been such a person himself. Beginning in 2018, he lived in tents throughout Lane County, campaigning against city and police abuse of Eugene’s homeless and working tirelessly to include their voices in political decision-making. 

His various protest camps became the stuff of legend, and he even filed a federal lawsuit against the city over its treatment of the unhoused. He was like a modern-day Diogenes, the Greek philosopher who used his bare-bones lifestyle as a vehicle to condemn the institutions of what he saw as a corrupt and unjust society.

Jackson was born in New Jersey on Oct. 21, 1966. His family spent time in both Jersey and Long Island, New York. He opened Echo Pizza & Wings in Echelon in 1987, an early example of his entrepreneurial spirit. His East Coast roots were evident in the way Jackson spoke quickly and with a certain brash confidence.

In the late 1980s, Jackson met the woman he would have two children with. The couple married but later separated, and his ex-wife eventually moved to Florida in 2011 with their two sons, Max and Jake. 

Max remembers visiting his dad and running around Echo Pizza as a kid. He liked how his dad let him do what he wanted, which was in stark contrast to how things were at his mother’s house. Max eventually became a photographer and traveled the country living out of an old ambulance converted into a recreational vehicle.

“One of my favorite memories is actually building a closet in my ambulance with him at a woodshop in Eugene,” Max said. “We did a lot of work on the van that summer.”

Seeing Max’s wanderlust eventually led to Jackson leaving the East Coast for the first time. He and Max traveled and camped throughout the country over the years, with Max saying one of his favorite trips with his father was in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. 

“That’s the one that really stands out,” Max said. “I keep thinking about it, that was our second road trip. My trailer tried to run us off the road, but I have a great picture of us out at our campsite, the mountains in the background.”

To those who knew Jackson in New Jersey, there might appear to be a disconnect between the person he was on the East Coast and who he would become known as in Eugene. The always-friendly pizza-slinger from the East Coast was now purposely living in a tent to bring attention to the plight of the homeless in a city he had no connection with. But Max said his father has always been eccentric and has always been devoted to helping others. 

“He gave away food and helped people in need at the pizza place,” Max said. “It’s wild seeing where he ended up and how many lives he’s impacted. He helped people everywhere he went.”

Jackson crash-landed in Eugene in early 2018 with the sole purpose of smoking good weed and helping the unhoused. Before that, he lived for a time in Colorado on “Stoner Hill,” the nickname for Commons Park in Denver that became popular among smokers, grifters, hippies and the homeless after recreational marijuana was legalized in 2014.

It was there that he heard about Lane County, home to more than 1,500 unhoused people, according to that year’s Point In Time survey.

“I told them that I looked at the 1,500 homeless in Eugene and said, ‘That’s the size of our graduating high school class,’” Jackson told Eugene Weekly in 2021. “How could they not house these people? It’s fucking ridiculous.”

Jackson’s arrival in Eugene coincided with the 2018 appeals court decision, Martin v. Boise, holding that cities can’t enforce anti-camping bans if there aren’t available homeless shelter beds. 

Jackson quickly made noise by putting that law to the test and becoming the public face of a protest camp formed around the Butterfly Lot parking structure, across Oak Street from the Lane County Courthouse. 

The Butterfly Lot camp forced Lane County to open an official homeless camp on Hwy 99 to relocate homeless campers who were congregating across from the courthouse. Jackson was one of the campers who took on a leadership role at Camp 99, before the county shut it down in January 2019. Jackson said the county cited bogus cleanliness claims so they could shut it down before it had a chance to succeed. 

In early 2020, Jackson and 75-year-old Pat Hadley had taken refuge in a couple of makeshift camps in front of former Eugene mayoral candidate Zondie Zinke’s house. Zinke said Jackson spent that summer taking care of Hadley in the face of constant ticketing by the EPD and even watching over her two kids.

“His range of consideration and empathy for people was astounding,” Zinke said. “For Eric, being in touch with people is what energized him every day.”

Jackson was also a regular at Eugene City Council meetings, having given statements nearly two dozen times since 2018. Whole Community News put together a comprehensive audio anthology of Jackson’s statements over the years. 

The first time Jackson spoke to the City Council was in June 2018. He’d only lived in the state for 105 days at that time, according to his statement. He asked the city for initiatives to create low-income housing and urged city leaders to quit banning people from sleeping in public parks. 

His last statement to the City Council was on Sept. 11, 2023. He pleaded for transparency among the Eugene police when they’re dealing with the unhoused, and warned the community about the health impacts of relocating the unhoused during the winter months. 

“Winter sweeps are coming again,” Jackson said. “Winter sweeps probably took five to 10 years off my lifespan, and it’s not fair.”

Jackson eventually racked up more than $12,000 in fines, with court documents showing that between Jan. 4 and Dec. 16, 2019, he was cited for prohibited camping 53 times. This is along with scores of citations and small violations also listed in the documents. 

These fines became the impetus to a court case filed by Jackson that seemed like a culmination of all of his work with the unhoused in Lane County.

In June 2020, Jackson and about a dozen other plaintiffs from the protest camps filed a federal lawsuit against the Eugene police, the city of Eugene and Lane County, among other people individually named, claiming that the city violated his constitutional rights by continually criminalizing Jackson’s way of life and the way of life for thousands of unhoused Eugeneans.

Jackson’s court case never quite got off the ground, and it likely died with him. However, his vision for a better Eugene that treats its unhoused population with dignity and respect still lives on through the thousands of people he impacted over the years. 

Zinke said more than 50 people showed up to an impromptu celebration of life and viewing of Jackson’s body on Nov. 30, a day after he died. Among the attendees were retired minister Wayne Martin, co-director of Carry It Forward Kris McAlister and community activist Todd Boyle. 

“My first conversation with Jackson, I walk up and go, ‘Hi, I’m Kris,’ and he goes, ‘Oh you’re Kris? I’m Eric and I’m here to tell you that you’ve been doing it wrong, and I’m here to show you how it’s gonna be done,’” McAlister said at the gathering. “Eric and I, we saw the same outcomes, but we did it so differently. He challenged me.”

Jackson was a dependable force for those in his life. He was the glue for a large community of unhoused people in Eugene, someone who connected others and went out of his way to make sure people were safe on the streets. The pineapple is an international symbol of hospitality, something Jackson embodied for the many of the local people who don’t have a house to live in.

Jackson spent his last night surrounded by friends and family who’d flown out to accompany him during his heart surgery. Max said his late night phone calls with his father are what he’s going to miss most.

“He was who I’d call to talk to on the phone with for three or four hours in the middle of the night if I needed someone,” Max said. “Not having that is going to really fucking suck.”

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