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‘He deserves a funeral’: Demetrius Coles’ burned body was found on a Vancouver sidewalk

30-year-old was among 45 homeless people that died in Clark County in 2023

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: January 27, 2024, 6:14am

Flames engulfed a dead man’s body on the sidewalk at West Ninth and Columbia streets in Vancouver five days before Christmas.

That man was 30-year-old Demetrius Coles. Forty-five homeless people died in 2023. Coles’ death, the final of the year, was the one that captured widespread attention.

“People think, ‘Oh, they’re homeless and on drugs. Whatever,’” said Tina Gillespie, Coles’ former girlfriend. “It’s really sad because, it’s like, they throw them away and nobody does anything to help them.”

Although the police investigation remains open until the medical examiner’s office completes its report, a process that could take months, Coles’ family believes he overdosed and then caught himself on fire with the torch he had been using to smoke fentanyl.

In Coles’ pocket, emergency responders found a business card for Jeff Patterson, a Portland artist. Police called the number on the card.

“I was really shocked,” Patterson said. “I just couldn’t believe that something like that had happened to him in such a short period of time.”

Just a few days before, Patterson had been sitting on a bench outside the downtown Vancouver library when a man with curly brown hair and a wide smile approached him.

He introduced himself as Demetrius. The two men began chatting about everything from Coles’ time wrestling in high school to Patterson’s love of Buddhism.

Coles was visibly homeless, Patterson said, with only a tent, a sandwich, a banana and a few pieces of candy. But he offered to share his lunch with Patterson.

“That’s what impressed me the most,” Patterson said. “He was extremely friendly and intelligent.”

Patterson handed him his business card and told him to call him if he ever wanted to attend a Buddhist meeting. Coles didn’t live long enough to make that call.

‘Biggest smile’

Coles had been homeless in Vancouver since he was around 15. He struggled with schizophrenia and drug addiction. He frequently encountered trouble with the law. Many of his citations were due to his homelessness and mental illness. He was well known and liked at Vancouver Defenders, the law office that often represented him.

He was also kind, funny, generous, intelligent and loved by many, people close to him say.

Coles loved drinking 7-Eleven Slurpees, no matter how cold it was outside, and took pleasure in making massive breakfasts for the people he loved while visiting them. His brother cherishes memories of learning to swim together when they were kids.

Every person The Columbian spoke to who knew Coles mentioned his smile.

“He always had the biggest smile on his face,” said Coles’ childhood friend, Alicenn Gabrielle Brainard. “He could make anyone laugh. He was always laughing. He cared about everyone immensely, even if he didn’t know them.”

‘Many difficult days’

Coles grew up with his brother and his mom in Beaverton, Ore. He loved attending school, never willing to miss a day even when he was sick, said his mother, Bridgett Coles.

His brother, Jermain Coles, said that when Demetrius was in middle school, he moved in with his father in Vancouver. That’s around the time his mental illness began, his brother said.

Demetrius Coles thrived on the wrestling mat at Hudson’s Bay High School, but he struggled at home.

At age 15, he met Linda Peter when she was picking up her grandchildren from school. Demetrius Coles was dating her granddaughter at the time.

“He was so cute. His smile was so cute,” Peter said. “Then I realized that he did not have a good home life.”

She and her husband invited Coles to live with them, and they took care of him until he was 18. They became like family to each other.

“We just connected. We’d laugh, and we’d joke. Sometimes, you just feel real close to someone,” she said.

As time went on, Peter noticed that Coles’ mental health was suffering. She took him to doctors and got him into therapy, but his symptoms worsened. Coles started living on the streets after he turned 18, but Peter continued to visit him and take him to his appointments.

“I told him I would never abandon him, even though … we had many difficult days,” she said.

On Coles’ good days, said Peter, now 78, he would walk around the city with her holding onto her arm, protecting her when people made snide comments at her presence, she said. Whenever she brought him food, he’d always share with people he knew were hungry, she said.

“The problem was, out on the streets, he was so scared, so lonely, so frightened,” Peter said. “And it just broke my heart.”

‘He just loved everybody’

Tina Gillespie met Coles in 2017 when she became homeless in Vancouver. Six months later, she found housing again but would see him occasionally walking on the street. A little over a year ago, they started dating and fell in love, she said.

“He just loved everybody, no matter what. He wouldn’t give up on people. He wouldn’t give up on me,” Gillespie said.

Coles would walk all over Vancouver, collecting flowers and forming them into massive bouquets for Gillespie.

She tried to get Coles into housing, she said, but he was too used to living on the streets.

“That was just his life,” Gillespie said.

But his mental illness put a strain on their relationship. Their lives were too different to make it work, Gillespie said.

Despite their relationship not working out, Gillespie said she will always love him.

‘He deserves a funeral’

Jermain Coles said many people failed his brother, who was in and out of the hospital and jail due to his mental illness.

“They just released him to the streets all the time,” Jermain Coles said. “That’s no good for somebody who doesn’t have their mind right. But what can you ask for them to do — take care of a grown man?”

Less than a week before his death, Demetrius Coles was released from jail after being arrested on a disorderly conduct charge for disrupting traffic. An officer observed Coles talking to himself and took him into custody, according to court documents. Coles never made it to his trial.

Coles’ mental illness made life difficult for him, but he was a blessing, his brother said.

Bridgett Coles visited the site where her son died right before Christmas and left a tree for him. She knows the struggle of living outside. She became homeless herself five years ago after a car crash left her disabled. She started a GoFundMe to raise money for a memorial service.

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“He deserves a funeral. He really does. A big funeral. But because I’m homeless, I have no money to put into a funeral,” she said.

Although many people might not realize they often passed Demetrius Coles on the street in downtown Vancouver, he touched many people’s lives, always making connections where he could, his mother said.

Demetrius’ biggest dream in life was to make a family of his own, Gillespie and Peter said.

Although he never had children, Demetrius Coles did create a family. He called Gillespie his wife. He and Gabrielle Brainard called each other cousin. He called Peter his grandmother, and she called him her grandson. There are likely more family members out there.

“He had the biggest, brightest smile throughout his whole life,” Peter said. “We really miss his laugh.”

Information

YOU CAN HELP

GET HELP

  • If you are struggling with drug addiction, call Columbia River Mental Health Services at 360-993-3000 to start a treatment plan or visit NorthStar Clinic from 7 a.m. to noon Mondays through Fridays at 7105 N.E. 40th St. in Vancouver.
  • People who need housing and shelter assistance should call Council for the Homeless’ Housing Hotline at 360-695-9677, which operates 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on holidays and weekends.
Community Funded Journalism logo

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.

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