At Vancouver’s Safe Parking Zone, Shawn Bacon’s legacy lives on. His RV still sits in the lot, where another Safe Park participant has moved in, according to Steven Culp, the Safe Park’s lead program assistant.
“Shawn was a character,” Culp said. “He knew somewhere in the moment of calmness, there was going to be a lot of absurdity.”
Bacon had severe diabetes. When he cut his toe in his RV last summer, he developed gangrene. He tried to get emergency medical assistance but was denied, Culp said.
“They refused to see him. And he passed away that next week,” Culp said.
Bacon was one of 37 members and supporters of Clark County’s homeless community who died in 2022. These individuals were honored at the National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day event held Wednesday evening at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Vancouver.
“Living outside is just so tearing down on a person that people literally do die from it,” Outsiders Inn Executive Director Adam Kravitz said. In Kravitz’s experience, people who are homeless primarily die from issues such as medical ailments, suicide, overdose, violence or natural causes.
The list was compiled through word of mouth and is likely an undercount, Kravitz said.
“The ebb and flow of homelessness, to me, is like a moving monster that we strategically and collectively fight against,” he said. “Today, I get to be objective and reflective on those that have passed.”
Remembering the invisible
A small crowd of community members stood around the church steps on the longest night of the year, bundled in thick coats, hats and gloves. Each participant held a candle while listening to a series of speakers. The below-freezing temperature was a stark reminder of the conditions people living outside endure every day.
The event, sponsored by St. Paul Lutheran Church, Outsiders Inn and Council for the Homeless, kicked off with an opening prayer followed by a Native blessing song by Sam Robinson, vice chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation. Speakers included Kravitz, Council for the Homeless Executive Director Sesany Fennie-Jones and Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle, among others.
“All too often, the men and women who are homeless in our community are invisible to us,” McEnerny-Ogle said in her reflection to the crowd. “And many times, even after they transition back into housing, they’re still lost and forgotten.”
Mercedes White Calf, an advocacy coordinator at the Native American Youth and Family Center and a survivor of homelessness, spoke about her own experience trying to help a homeless individual.
“This year, outside of my apartment complex, there was a man,” White Calf said. “He sat there with a blanket over him day after day, and it started to get cold.”
White Calf started spending time with the man, drying his clothes and giving him a tarp and blanket. Finally, when the weather became too cold, she called the police and he agreed to go to the hospital.
“That’s when I found out he was 6-foot-7 and wore a size 17 shoe. But he had become such a small, tiny person,” she said.
White Calf honored the man and others like him in a prayer that she read aloud. She doesn’t see him anymore, she said.
“I don’t even know his name.”
During an opportunity for public reflection, several attendees took the podium to speak about loved ones and neighbors lost to addiction, medical issues and other complications that often accompany homelessness. Culp spoke about Bacon, as well as James Dean Leher, who also lived at the Safe Park.
Leher had “one of the coolest setups of a van that he lived out of,” Culp said. “He had a little cooker and a bed in the van. We would call him ‘the older Sam Elliott,’ because he kind of looked like him.” Leher died of liver failure, according to Culp.
Yet, as attendees paused in silence to recall those lost, those living outside continued shouting — literally, in Wednesday’s case — for help. A man who lives on Vancouver’s streets interrupted the event by shouting repeatedly: “I’m alive!”
Several attendees and community leaders spoke to the man, de-escalating the situation. But his point remained.
“I think the point he was trying to make is, we’re memorializing all these people, but he wants you to pay attention to those who are still alive,” Vancouver Homelessness Response Coordinator Jamie Spinelli said.
Spinelli, who knows the man through her outreach work, said he likely suffers from an untreated mental illness.
“We are doing a great job compared to where we were. But the voices are saying what they’re saying,” Kravitz said. “We have more shelter, we have more outreach workers, and we’re doing all the work, and it’s like — it’s not enough.”
For Kravitz, believing in every person’s potential “over and over again, no matter what” is critical to helping the homeless.
Fennie-Jones with Council for the Homeless moved to Vancouver just a few months ago. When she first visited the city, she said she had never seen homelessness like it is in Vancouver.
“I know that Council for the Homeless will not be the ones to save or solve homelessness. It will take a community,” she said. “It will take all of us to solve this.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.