William Eugene ‘Badger’ Eli: Dec. 8, 1967 – Feb. 18, 2024

A friendship based on love and caring also exemplifies the trials and tribulations for the homeless and the people who care for them

William Eugene ‘Badger’ Eli. Photo courtesy of Wayne Martin and Janet Taylor.

In the end — Feb. 18 at 6:41 pm — William Eugene Eli, known to his friends as “Badger,” died peacefully at a hospice and not, as some had envisioned, alone on the street.

Eli, who was 56 years old, had been in and out of the Lane County and Springfield jails and spent time in the Oregon prison system. He had mental illness issues (schizophrenia) as well as problems with drug use. Always, it seems, he had failure-to-appear citations to answer for. 

He also had a stay at Oregon State Hospital. This is where Wayne Martin, his friend and protector of almost a decade, says Eli was his most stable self for a short time in 2017 because he was getting the consistent treatment he needed.

“He got really better,” Martin says of that time. “It’s too much to say he was thriving, but he was helping people. He was painting. I was really impressed.”

That stability was temporary, Martin adds. Once away from the medication and structure of the hospital, Eli’s mental illness saw him loudly shouting to himself and with others in the backyard of Martin’s home in west Eugene. Neighbors called the police to the home. Martin and his wife, Janet Taylor, attempted to reach Eli with gentle discussion. None of it seemed to work.

“They live a minute at a time,” Martin says of people with mental illness.

Martin says Eli grew less mentally stable starting in 2020 and that his physical health began to deteriorate in 2023. By Feb. 12, Eli was in the emergency room of McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center in Springfield with a septic gallbladder, which doctors attempted to drain. When that failed, Eli was moved to the Pete Moore Hospice House in Eugene, where he died.

Martin marvels at the professional care Eli received at McKenzie-Willamette in that last week and the delicate spiritual touch that the hospice house added in those last days. It was a far cry from what Martin feared for Eli.

“For years I was expecting someone to find him in a bush,” he says.

Very little is known about Eli’s early years. Martin believes that Eli grew up mostly in Salem and possibly had some Native American heritage. Eli struggled in school and finally dropped out of high school. At age 18, Martin adds, Eli enlisted in the Army, but he was dishonorably discharged six months after enlistment for his part in a fight and failing to appear at a court-martial hearing. To Martin’s or anyone’s knowledge, Eli did not have family in the area.

Yet Eli had a presence in Eugene. “He was well-known and liked,” Martin says. “Badger had a way of helping people.”

On May 11, a celebration of life service was held for Eli before almost 30 people at First Christian Church in downtown Eugene. Music, scripture and thoughts were shared for close to 90 minutes in an informal service. Some spoke fondly of Eli’s generosity of spirit and of the unique difficulty he presented. 

Others who did not know Eli took a broader view of how society treats the homeless and mentally ill.

One such person was Mary Sharon Moore, who is active in Eugene’s Catholic community, a friend of Martin’s and an advocate for the homeless. She noted in prepared remarks she read at the service that “Badger and his suffering kinfolk inhabit the exposed center and the remote margins of our town and our society.”

She added, “Badger and his kinfolk offer us countless opportunities to awaken from our sleepwalk, to become real human beings, to grow into our fuller humanity, so that they might grow into their fuller humanity, too.”

Taylor, Martin’s wife, spoke shortly after Moore and explained that Eli was her first serious encounter with a homeless person who had a mental illness.

It didn’t always go well, she said.

“Was he an easy neighbor to have? I’d have to say no. He was a handful. I just kept praying for him. Sometimes, I felt that was enough. He had such a hard life.”

Taylor, a family and marriage therapist, visited Eli at the hospice. “We knew this day would come,” she said, and at her visit, she anointed Eli with oil and said a blessing. “Then I cried.”

 The love that Martin had for Eli was obvious to everyone in the sanctuary of First Christian Church on May 11, and Taylor noted that Eli returned that love. “He was so devoted to Wayne.”

Martin’s and Eli’s paths intersected for the first time in August 2013. Both men were at a crossroads.

Martin had moved to Eugene in 2012 to be near his daughter after spending 32 years as a pastor with congregations in Boston, Philadelphia and Monterey, California, for the United Church of Christ. “I struggled as a retiree,” he says. “Many ministers do.”

Then one afternoon he received a phone call from a friend. Eli was to be released from prison and dropped off at the Springfield jail. A woman was supposed to pick up Eli at the jail and take him to the most stable environment available, but she was unable to do it. Martin was asked to step in. 

He did, and Martin drove Eli to the only safe site he could think of at the time, a homeless encampment on the corner of Broadway and Hilyard in Eugene, then the site of “Whoville” and the former site of Occupy Eugene. Later, Martin would help establish Opportunity Village and was on its original vetting committee. He does other volunteer work on behalf of the homeless.

Eli had been imprisoned for multiple theft, trespassing and failure-to-appear citations and, Martin says, his mental illness was always a concern.

Martin circled back to check on Eli, and after four days, Eli asked Martin if he could stay in a garage adjacent to Martin’s home in the Ferry Street area for a few days. Martin said no initially because someone was already staying there. That person, however, found an apartment, and Eli took the garage.

From there, Martin dryly notes, “Let’s just say I rarely lost contact with him.”

Martin and Taylor were married in 2015. They moved — with Eli close behind — to a bigger house in west Eugene. Eli got what Martin calls the “children’s house” in the backyard, which was a shed. It was a shelter.

After the 2017 stay at Oregon State Hospital, things were relatively stable for Eli, but 2020, the year of the pandemic, proved to be rough for him, Martin says.

“By now he was less and less stable,” Martin recounts. “His mental health was really in decline.”

This was the time that Eli was routinely shouting at high volume in the backyard — sometimes to himself, sometimes with people he brought over — and neighbors routinely called the police. Taylor, who had a back room at the house converted to an office for her work, was having difficulty conducting Zoom meetings in the summer months with a window open.

Around this time, too, Martin helped Eli get on Social Security ($841 per month to start, later $941) and was the representative payee for Eli, appointed by the agency for anyone who can’t manage or direct the management of their funds. 

By 2023, however, something changed, Martin says. Eli began to speak more calmly, with fewer and fewer outbursts. He made friends with a man named Timothy Williams and befriended Williams’ two young children. He had even taken on some day-labor jobs with friends.

“He was more mild,” Martin says. “He was more polite.”

Physically, though, Eli was shutting down, Martin notes. That led to the Feb. 12 trip to the ER at McKenzie-Willamette, and Martin was nervous about it.

“He was a frequent flier,” Martin says of Eli. “ERs didn’t want him. They found a way to kick him out.”

Not this time. Doctors at McKenzie-Willamette — who, Martin says, found traces of alcohol, marijuana, methamphetamine and fentanyl in Eli’s system — diagnosed the septic gallbladder. Because Eli had no family that could be found, doctors told Martin of the option of having the gallbladder removed or draining it. Martin wondered if removal would be better, but doctors were concerned Eli would die on the table, so they attempted to drain the gallbladder.

When that didn’t work, Eli was transferred to the hospice. A guitarist and singer, Buck Mueller, serenaded Eli with music. Martin doesn’t relate when people ask if Eli could hear the music.

“I don’t romanticize things,” he says. “That’s a little ambitious.”

Still, as he sat next to Eli’s bed, Martin decided to synchronize his breathing to Eli’s. One last time, it was the two of them together. “When he breathed in, I breathed in. When he breathed out, I breathed out. That’s as good as it gets.”

That was Feb. 17. The next day — Sunday, Feb. 18 — the retired pastor took the day off. He got the call of Eli’s passing that evening.

“It’s hard to say no,” Martin says of why he helped Eli and others. “Some of my friends think I’m loyal to a fault.”

Martin smiles at the thought, then taps at his heart.  

“Somehow, they belong here.”