Dying Homeless and Anonymous

By Twila Nesky-Newth of Portland, Oregon. Twila is a graduate student at Portland State.

December 21st was Winter Solstice -- the longest night of the year -- and I was Jeff Landry. I'd never met the man, so I was surprised to find out that's who I was.

Jeff Landry stood in the South Park Blocks of Portland, in the rain, with a group of another dozen or so folks who'd taken new names, briefly, between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m.

Musicians played guitars softly while Keith Vann explained why we'd come together, handing us our new names'printed in large, bold font on regular paper, as he spoke.

Then Mayor Tom Potter talked about the shame and the waste of human life, of people who die anonymously on the streets every year.

Jeff Landry can't remember now whether it was Keith Vann or Tom Potter who said that 127 or 125 cities in America have a memorial every December 21st to hold, to speak, and to honor the names of homeless people who die on the streets each year.

Many more than those whose names we held have died this year, but most agencies -- hospitals, shelters, morgues, and such -- can't give out information about clients who pass away because of confidentiality and the deceased person's right to privacy. Memory and word of mouth had conjured the few we would speak of tonight.

An older man, homeless, said Hooper Detox was a good place for names. He'd once helped them carry out box loads of deceased people's records. 'They know whenever one of us dies,' he said, as though he considered himself one of the dead already. He wasn't dramatic or morbid, just stating a practical fact. Maybe next Winter Solstice, someone will hold his name.

Meanwhile, Jeff Landry stood by with his little tea-candle, sheltering its flame from the rain.

Jeff Landry was waiting his turn to have his name said once more.

After the speakers spoke and while the music played, we, the newly named, went
counterclockwise around the circle and one-by-one spoke out our names.

When it was Jeff Landry's turn, I said his name with as much dignity and clarity as possible. Suddenly, enunciation and voice projection felt more important than usual.

I said his name.
Then I blew out his candle.
Good night stranger.
Good night Jeff Landry.
The honor was mine.


  • Jim (unverified)

    I'm not sure what to say here, but I think it's important that a compelling story like this not sit alone, unresponded to. How wonderful it is to live in a community where some people feel concern for those who are, for the most part, forgotten while they are alive, and surely after they die. Thank you Twila.

  • Randy Leonard (unverified)

    Very poignant, Twila.

    You have brought humanity to Jeff’s life.

    I am glad to read your piece after hearing so much from Julie about your writing talent.

    Keep it up. I would enjoy reading more from you on BlueOregon.

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