Simple Respect

A Eugene newspaper set out to publish obituaries for people who die while homeless. The project raises questions about transparency, privacy, and storytelling.

In January 2021, a candlelight vigil was held to honor the lives of the thirty people who had died while homeless in Eugene in 2020. Nearly one hundred people gathered a single street away from Washington Jefferson Park, the site of the city’s largest camp, where around two hundred people were living. A list of the names read at the vigil appeared in Eugene Weekly’s newsroom the next morning, and journalist Bob Keefer got to thinking.

“I’ve been a reporter in Eugene for forty years, and I know a lot of people, at least by name,” Keefer says. “I was interested that I didn’t recognize a single name on the list.” He then posed the question: “Who are these people?” Those four words kick-started the newspaper’s project to write obituaries for all the people who died in Eugene while homeless over the next year.

Many surveys have named Eugene as the American city with the highest number of homeless people per capita. According to Lane County Human Services, roughly three thousand people were actively homeless in Eugene in February 2022. (This number includes both people staying in shelters and those living outside.) More than thirty people die while homeless in the city every year, and their deaths often go unnoticed by the community at large. Keefer and his colleagues wanted to change that. 

As a genre of writing, the obituary has been in decline for years; what used to be a staple of newspapers nationwide is now reduced almost exclusively to paid obituaries written by family members of the deceased. These notices usually consist of a few flowery sentences that provide only a rosy snapshot: a woman who loved to work in her garden, a man who never missed a single Mets game.

Keefer had a more thorough model in mind, one in which he and his colleagues would apply their professional writing and reporting expertise to tell the stories of people who might otherwise remain unknown. He says, “Some people think of obituaries as real drudgery, but I think about them as a way of telling a person’s whole life, as succinctly and interestingly as possible.” The project could also help people living outside by “humanizing a problem that we are trying as hard as we can to ignore.” But first, he would have to get their names.

Because of federal privacy laws, there isn’t a way for journalists to receive official notification of a death from any public agency. Reporters can submit public records requests, but most agencies charge fees for providing information. And until this year, those public records didn’t consistently reflect whether a person was homeless at the time of their death. (Senate Bill 850, which passed in 2021, now requires this information to be reported.) Eugene Weekly, a newspaper with only four permanent staffers in the newsroom, doesn’t have the resources to fund records request on spec, so the reporters have to rely on other methods. Some have established relationships with social service providers who directly interact with many homeless people in Eugene, and it’s from them that the newspaper usually receives notice of a death. Generally all the reporters have to work with is a name, location, and time of death. They often have to wait for the other, more robustly funded Eugene newspaper, the Register-Guard, to publish a story confirming specific details.

The reporting process for the obituaries can be difficult and convoluted. Ella Hutcherson was an intern at the Weekly who wrote three obituaries in 2021. She says the first assignment came with only a name. She looked up the date of death in the Register-Guard. She found the website of the funeral home that hosted a memorial service and called them to ask for a contact, but they said they couldn’t divulge such information. She ran the woman’s name through every public records website she could find that didn’t have a paywall. She still couldn’t find anything. 

Hutcherson then looked up the deceased woman’s profile on Facebook and found a handful of people who were consistently associated with her online. She reached out to five of them and got no responses. A few weeks after her initial message, she received a response from one of the woman’s relatives and they started messaging, but it turned out that they hadn’t been very close, and Hutcherson gained little from the interaction. 

Hutcherson’s experience was typical. Of the thirty people who died while homeless in Eugene in 2021, the Weekly staff were only able to find enough information to write obituaries for thirteen. But as the obituary project became more established and word of it circulated throughout the community, sources began to reach out to the paper. 

Sarah Fallingwater’s mother contacted the newsroom the week of her daughter’s death and was put in touch with Hutcherson. “It was a very fruitful but difficult conversation because the death was super recent,” Hutcherson says. “She wanted to tell me exactly what had happened and why.” 

Fallingwater’s mother began talking about systemic problems straightaway. She believed her daughter had been subjected to unfair eligibility rules from social service providers. For example, Fallingwater had been denied mental health care services because the provider found meth in her blood, and drug use disqualifies enrollment.

Hutcherson says she feels a journalistic responsibility to defer to her sources. She believes what is most important to the source, in this case Fallingwater’s mother, is what should be presented as the most prominent piece of the obituary. But the obituaries aren’t dedicated only to discussing the deceased’s homelessness. “I’ve always wanted to strike a balance between conveying who this person was and the circumstances they had to deal with,” Hutcherson says. “I try to sandwich the homelessness discussion in the middle of the obituary,” while starting and ending with details about their character—in Fallingwater’s case, that meant writing about her former job as a nurse and about her artistic inclinations. 

 

Keefer says sources often feel ashamed, and are reluctant to talk to a journalist about a family member or friend who died while homeless. He recalls one conversation with the mother of a man who had died; she repeatedly insisted that her son “wasn’t homeless. He was in a program.” Keefer responded, “He was in a program because he was homeless.” They went back and forth a couple of times, until she eventually hung up the phone. A few hours later, the woman’s husband called and offered all the information she wouldn’t provide. He said they’d talked about it over dinner and decided it was important that the story be run. 

Denial, of course, is a part of grieving, but this type of denial is particularly complicated. Survivors’ shame is sometimes tangled up with feelings of personal responsibility or guilt for not intervening. In many cases, intergenerational poverty is a part of the story, and families didn’t necessarily have the resources to keep their loved ones off the street, assist them financially, or provide other kinds of support. 

Sarah Fallingwater’s mother, for example, felt guilt about her daughter’s death but repeatedly told Hutcherson that Fallingwater had always had a strong sense of independence and refused to ask for help from anybody, including her mother. It’s not necessarily the journalist’s job to try to discern between truth and rationalizations, which may not be completely honest. The Eugene Weekly reporters keep their obituaries focused on the deceased, not on the surviving family members. They also generally omit how their subjects wound up living outside in the first place. 

There’s no standard approach to writing obituaries for people who die while homeless because it hasn’t been done that often; while various newspapers across the country have run obituaries for homeless people, Eugene Weekly’s rigor is unique. The goal of commemorating every death on the streets is unprecedented in the United States.

 

Eugene Weekly’s obituary project isn’t the first time Keefer has written profiles of homeless people. In the early 1980s, when he was working at the Long Beach Press-Telegram in Southern California, a colleague, Leo Hetzel, proposed to Keefer that they find a story by talking to “the bums” on Pine Avenue, a main street near the newspaper’s office. Keefer complied. 

They found an unbathed man sitting on a curb, reading the Financial Times. Keefer said the man told them “this fascinating story that seemed completely unhinged” about how he’d been an engineer and how he had a lot of money and was reading the Financial Times to keep up with his investments. When they asked him where he lived, he pointed to a building that was set for demolition. The building had a tall chain-link fence topped with barbed wire and secured with a large, cartoonish padlock. When Keefer and Hetzel asked him how he got into the building, he replied, “Well, I have the key.” After a dramatic pause, he continued, “The key is you go in when the gate is open.” 

Keefer and his colleague ran a story about the man under the headline, “Glenn Drifts Downtown, Along With His Dreams.” The story was condescending, depicting Glenn as a liar and a figure of ridicule. Keefer’s final words of the story were patronizing: “He’s been there and back, and there and back, and now he’s out there for good.” 

The day after the story ran, Keefer got a call from Glenn’s brother, who said Glenn’s story was true: he was in fact an engineer who had earned a lot of money during a brilliant and prolific career. Then, sometime in his forties, he developed schizophrenia. His family entered him in treatment programs, but he was never happy with them and always walked out. He was much happier living on the street, the brother said, and as much as he worried about him, it was ultimately Glenn’s call. 

The conversation was humbling for Keefer, who is now more fervent in his deference to sources, crafting obituaries that rely on family testimony as their foundation. He keeps a photograph of Glenn on the filing cabinet next to his desk for two reasons: as a reminder of the journalistic imperative to treat subjects with dignity, and as a reminder of his former colleague Hetzel, who always insisted on doing things differently. The obituary project, so far, achieves both goals and honors both reminders.

The evolution of Keefer’s approach to reporting about people on the streets reflects not only a shift in his personal outlook, but also our changing times. The collective attitude toward homelessness—and perhaps our collective understanding of the primary social and political drivers behind the phenomenon—now aligns more closely with the idea that it’s caused by systemic forces rather than personal failings.

Eugene Weekly’s obituary project was born in part out of frustration. Eugene residents routinely find themselves observing what sometimes appears to be a crusade led by the city against homeless people. This has included the forced relocation of camps during winter months (always citing public health concerns, despite CDC guidelines saying to let people stay at their camps during the pandemic) and the installation of sophisticated mosaics made of jagged rocks beneath highway bridges, so as to keep people from sleeping there. 

The journalists at Eugene Weekly say they thought the obituaries might make it more difficult for Eugene’s public officials to evade responsibility for their inaction around the housing crisis. They’ve learned how difficult it is to obtain information about the deaths of homeless people through public agencies, and how the laws responsible for these constant dead ends, purportedly designed to protect privacy, wind up enforcing secrecy. The obituaries are intended to spark a discourse. It’s too soon to say if they’ve succeeded.

Eugene Weekly is widely circulated in print, available to pick up for free at over eight hundred locations. I’ve seen copies of the paper, crumpled and damp, among other trash at camps all over the city, but whether the people living in them read the paper or the obituaries is unclear. The handful of people I’ve spoken to didn’t know anything about the project.

The obituaries have been more obviously important to the friends and families of the deceased, whose comments so far have consisted only of praise. After the obituaries Hutcherson wrote were published, she was contacted and thanked by almost all of the families she spoke to, for the simple act of paying respect to their lives.

Because the newsroom at Eugene Weekly is so small, every journalist has multiple responsibilities, and one of Keefer’s jobs is editing the letters to the editor. Keefer says, “Among the letters we have yet to have anybody say, ‘Why are you bothering?’” 

As 2021 drew to a close, Keefer reminded his colleagues at a staff meeting that the obituary project was originally intended to last just one year. He asked them, “Are we going to stop?” And the rest of the room replied, “No. We can’t.” 

 

Comments

1 comments have been posted.

Thank you for writing this and reporting on the homeless in a way not done before. The more people like you give honest assessments of the lives of the homeless population, the more we understand and the more we can do to help this complex aspect of humanity. We also need to realize that these people could be us.

Tess Chedsey | April 2022 | Warrenton, OR

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