Not too long ago I came across one of the more incredible projects connected to documenting the plight of the homeless in Oregon, or anywhere in America for that matter. I felt compelled to share here in my newsletter and hope readers will explore it. If I were still teaching, I would have had my students read these obituaries and then run them through a series of writing and thinking prompts. I hope there are teachers out there doing this kind of lesson on this subject.
Below is the description of the project, an interview with one of its reporters, and a link to the obituaries of the Eugene homeless people who died in 2021.
Eugene Weekly is attempting to write obituaries for every homeless person the paper learns of who died in Eugene in 2021. So far, the paper has told of the life and death of thirteen people. Ella Hutcherson is a reporter for Eugene Weekly and wrote several of the stories. She joins us to talk about the project.
Dave Miller: At the beginning of this year, Eugene Weekly started an ambitious project. They would try to write obituaries for every homeless person they learned of who died in Eugene in 2021. So far, the paper has told about the life and the death of 13 people. Ella Hutcherson is a reporter for Eugene Weekly. She has written several of these stories, and she joins us now to talk about this project. Ella, welcome.
Ella Hutcherson: Hi, thank you so much.
Miller: Thanks for joining us. The first obituary that you worked on was for a man named Charles Rintalan. Can you tell us a little bit about him?
Hutcherson: Charles was a man who was homeless in Eugene for about 40 years of his life. During the last two years of his life, he lived in the home of his sister, who I was able to speak with about him. He had a golden retriever dog named Boo, he loved nature, he loved helping people. He often volunteered to help people with their gardens. He drove around in this van that Ann told me was just kind of akin to an art object, because it was just so decorated, and kind of something that he had turned into his home for the decades that he was without one.
Miller: One of the things that’s really striking about his story is, as you noted, just how long he was homeless for: about 40 years in the area. I imagine that, as a result of that, a lot of people in Eugene or in Lane County might have passed by him, or seen his van, or talked to him over the course of 40 years, perhaps without knowing that much about him. What kinds of responses did you get after his obituary ran?
Hutcherson: The main response that I got myself was from his sister. Initially when I called her, she kind of thought that I was asking to include Charles in a story about homeless people who had died during Covid. But when I explained to her that I wanted to write an obituary for Charles personally, things really turned around in our conversation and she was much more forthcoming with me about who he was and what his life was like.
After the obituary came out, I heard from her. She wrote me this really kind email about how much that had meant to her and the people, the family and friends, that had reached out to her personally. So, knowing that she had gotten feedback, and she had gotten people reaching out, was the primary positive response that I remember from getting that obituary out there.
Miller: Has it been hard to get family members to talk about the people they’ve lost?
Hutcherson: You know, in my experience, it really isn’t. I can’t speak for every obituary that’s been done, I know it’s different in every case, but in my reporting experience with this project, people who I’ve spoken to really want to tell me about the people that they’ve lost. They want to tell me about their personalities and their hobbies and their passions, but also why they were homeless, because typically they’re angry about it, and they’re upset at the system, and they want that story out there, because people have a reaction to that. So, I’ve never had a problem. Once I get people on the phone. Honestly, getting people on the phone is the hardest part. Then, once you’re having that conversation, they’ve always been willing to share, in my experience.
Miller: It does seem like one of the hallmarks of this series is that you and the other writers are writing frankly about both people’s struggles and their strengths, but you’re not sugarcoating things. How do you think about that balance, when you’re writing a full picture of somebody’s life and death, when these are people who spent a lot of years living on the street?
Hutcherson: That’s a good question. It’s like what you said, like it’s painting the full picture; their homelessness is an aspect of their story, and an aspect of their lives, just as other things are. When I’m writing those stories I’m trying to be clear that while it’s not the only thing that defined who they were, it was something that they dealt with and an obstacle that they faced. That’s not something we should shy away from, especially if we’re trying to draw attention to a really serious crisis in our community. So just like you said, getting that full picture in there, I think, is really important.
Miller: Can you tell us a little bit about Sarah Fallingwater, another person whose obituary you wrote?
Hutcherson: Sarah died in Eugene, and she was in her 40s when she passed away. She dealt with severe mental health problems and methamphetamine abuse, which led to her death, but she was also a former nursing assistant and she was very passionate about nursing. She just seemed like a really determined and hardworking woman, and talking to her mother was very emotional because it had only been a few days since she passed when I spoke to her. Everything was still very fresh and very raw, but that was also a really, really impactful story to work on.
Miller: In the obituaries that you’ve run, you’ve relied a fair amount, it seems from reading them, on interviews with people’s family members. Have you also run into cases where you simply can’t find information about the people who have died?
Hutcherson: I have, yes. Those are really hard. I was trying to write a story for a while about a woman who had died homeless in Eugene. All we had was her name and her death date, and I searched databases, called the funeral home, was sifting through facebook, for almost a month, trying to find someone to speak with, and we never found anybody. The only person I made contact with wasn’t even sure that they were related to her, and could never really figure it out, so we couldn’t find anyone who knew that person. That was really hard.
Miller: You know, another way to think about it that just occurred to me is it’s possible to see it as more surprising, how rare that is, given the way sometimes people might think about homelessness. That then how common it was for you [to find someone]. For the most part, you’ve been able to get in touch with people, many of whom don’t live that far away, who are family members or friends, who can tell you about the lives of the people who are living on the street. That seems to have been more the norm than people for whom you can’t find connections.
I wonder if you could tell us one more story about somebody you wrote about. This is the most recent obituary that you wrote, for a woman named Shandee Franke.
Hutcherson: Yes. Shandee died recently in Eugene. She was only 25 years old. I spoke with her mother as well, and her mother just told me these stories about how she loved animals, and she rescued animals. Her mother’s current dog is a chihuahua that she rescued and brought to her mother. Her boyfriend took his life in January, and she had already really been struggling at that point, and she ended up taking her own life in October. She was so young, so that one was really difficult, but also, I think, got a pretty impassioned reaction from the community when it came out.
Miller: What were the particular issues that you had to navigate for her obituary, given that she died by suicide?
Hutcherson: Just being intentional with the words that I’m using. I continue to feel like we can’t shy away from what really happened in these instances, and there is a serious mental health crisis in this community. She was dealing with serious mental health issues that were not effectively addressed by the systems that are in place here, and that’s a serious problem. Illustrating that, but also being sensitive to that, it’s definitely a tightrope to walk, but it’s important, and her mother really wanted that aspect of the story out there actually, so that we could illustrate what a problem it was. That wasn’t an issue that I ran into.
Miller: Ella, the mothers of both Shandee Franke and Sarah Fallingwater, in their obituaries, it seemed that they made an effort to talk about the way they saw the deaths of their children as being examples of larger failures, societal failures, failures in the system. This was also the case in other ones for the series that you didn’t write. What did they tell you about what they wanted the public to know?
Hutcherson: What they wanted the public to know is what I made an effort to put at the forefront of the article. When I’m reporting, I try to follow the lead of the people that I’m talking to, in what they feel is important, and in both of their cases, as soon as I got on the phone, they wanted to tell me about the structural failings that had led to their daughters’ deaths. If that was something that they felt was important, then I absolutely was not going to shy away from including that in the article, because it is important, and if that’s something they want out there, then it needs to be out there.
Miller: Have you ever worked on a project like this before?
Hutcherson: I absolutely had not. This is new to me.
Miller: Why did you want to work on it?
Hutcherson: Well, I do think that it’s unique, and I think that it’s accomplishing something important on a couple of levels, because it is bringing peace to the families and friends of the people that were lost. It’s providing a story to these people who were really multifaceted, complex, nuanced individuals, and on a broader level, it’s highlighting multiple serious problems in our community that need to be addressed. When you have a face to that crisis, it makes people become more invested in that crisis, and it makes it abundantly more clear just how close to us it really all is.
Miller: What do you think you’ve learned, in the process of working on these obituaries?
Hutcherson: I think I’ve learned the same thing that I’m trying to illustrate to the community; I’ve learned just how entangled in this problem we all are, and how close it truly is to us. Also, it has made me abundantly more aware how intertwined the mental health crisis and the homeless crisis really are. I think if we can invest more in mental health, then we can help with the homeless crisis. That is such a huge problem here. It’s really, really a massive crisis. This has made that all that much more clear to me, just talking to the people who are involved and understanding their anger and exactly what they’re upset about.
Miller: Ella Hutcherson, thanks very much.
Hutcherson: Thank you.
Miller: Ella Hutchison is a reporter for Eugene Weekly. She’s one of the members of the team that’s been writing obituaries for homeless people who have died in Eugene over the course of this year.