Let's hope Egan's memory can inspire us
By Pearl Wolfe
Posted: Dec 31, 2008
I commend The Register-Guard for its Dec. 21 editorial about Thomas
Egan, a 60-year-old man who froze to death on the streets of Lane
County. At first no one knew who he was; he was one of us. Then there is
the puzzle of how this could this happen. How can we tolerate
homelessness? How can people die out there, alone in the snow?
I was facilitating a meeting one recent
afternoon with 25 advocates for the homeless. We were making plans for
our annual One Night Homeless Count that will take place Jan. 28. We
have been conducting this count through the Lane County Human Services
Commission for a dozen years or so. We count people who use emergency
shelters and transitional housing, and those that are turned away
because no space is available.
In recent years we have added what is
termed "a street count" to capture the people who are homeless and who
don't make use of our shelters and other services. We now count people
who use our drop-in centers, food pantries and dining sites.
Our school homeless liaisons help us
count the students who are homeless and all the members of their
families. The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management
count the people who are camping because they can't afford a deposit and
the first and last months' rent. Many of these people are working, yet
they can't afford to live inside.
One of our homeless activists, David
Robertson, who works on the streets and connects with long-term homeless
people (officially called the "chronically homeless") asked, "Why do we
have to do this count?"
We do the count because it's required by
the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which gives us more
than $2 million a year to help local agencies that provide homeless
services. The state of Oregon also requires it for federal and state
But the real reason we count homeless
people is because it gives us a way to speak on their behalf. We count
the homeless so we can describe the men, women and children who are
struggling to survive. We do it so we can inform the community about who
they are what they need. Martin Luther King Jr. summed it up eloquently:
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that
This matters. Thomas Egan matters.
Last Jan. 31, we counted 2,111 homeless people in Lane County. That
number doesn't paint the whole picture, simply a point in time. We know
that in the course of a year, more than 11,000 Lane County residents
were homeless when they sought services from one of our 28 programs.
At last year's Project Homeless Connect,
1,158 people who were homeless or at risk of being homeless received
help from our one-day, one-stop shop at the Lane County fairgrounds.
More than 600 volunteers, along with 281 services providers, offered
health care, dental and vision care, mental health services, housing
assistance, food, clothing and more. We had to close the volunteer
registration because the response was so overwhelming.
People want to do something about
homelessness in Lane County. Our nonprofit providers do their best with
scarce resources. They work hard so that stories like Thomas Egan's are
shocking and not a normal occurrence. But we can't, at this point, save
A local grass-roots organization,
CALC-SAFER, headed by veteran community activist Marion Malcolm, led the
most recent response. It was as simple as her waking up one freezing and
snowy morning last week, and realizing that it was just too cold for
homeless people to survive.
She quickly garnered the help of three
Springfield churches: First Baptist, Ebert Memorial and St. Alice's.
They offered their buildings for six nights as an extreme weather
emergency shelter. FOOD for Lane County delivered food to the doors of
these churches for the people who came in from the bitter cold. The
Human Services Commission, the county's anti-poverty program, quickly
allocated $8,000 in motel vouchers and funds for sleeping bags, blankets
and other basics. Veterans Reintegration Services brought cots and
blankets. Malcolm, along with Janet Beckman, a homeless school liaison,
and Dan Rupe, from Veterans Reintegration Services, were among the
volunteers who spent the night at these churches.
With Malcolm's leadership, the community
quickly patched together a makeshift shelter. Well over 100 people
sought refuge in these churches, an asylum from the cold.
At our One Night Homeless Count Meeting,
we talked about the need for a formal protocol - a real plan to be
adopted by local jurisdictions that could go into action when
temperatures dip to freezing or below.
I went home that night to my warm house
and my family on one of the darkest days of the year, and felt a deep
sadness for this man who died last week. I cried for him. I did not know
him, but I cry for him. May his memory continue to move people to
respond to the plight of homelessness. Let us, as a community, reach
into our hearts and show that we care deeply about the most vulnerable
people among us.
Wolfe is supervisor of the Lane County Human Services Commission
and co-chairwoman for Project Homeless Connect. She is former director
of Looking Glass Youth & Family Services' New Roads Program for Homeless