Service honors homeless people who died in Salem area

A memorial for homeless people who died in the Salem area in the past two years, held by the ARCHES Project at Marion Square Park on Thursday, May 26. (Ardeshir Tabrizian/Salem Reporter)

Homeless service providers with the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency saw Kevin Graham for the last time at an event they held at Wallace Marine Park in May 2020.

The next day, Lucy Briseno, program manager for the agency’s day center, got a call from a case manager who told her Graham had suffered a heart attack in his tent.

Speaking at a homeless memorial Thursday at Marion Square Park, Briseno said she will never forget learning about his death.

“I couldn’t fathom how just like that, in a tent in a public park, someone who served their country for many, many years, his life was just cut short,” she recalled. 

Graham is one of roughly 50 people who had been homeless in the Salem area who died in the past two years, according to Jimmy Jones, executive director for the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency. 

It’s the first memorial held by the ARCHES Project, part of Community Action, to honor those in the community who died in the past two years while unsheltered.

When four people in a downtown roadside encampment were killed on March 27 by a driver police say was drunk, Jones said it brought up trauma from the recent deaths of many others who were homeless. ARCHES staff, after talking with people they served in their day center, decided it was time for a formal memorial.

Jones said homeless people are in “incredible jeopardy” by living outside on the streets and being forced to move closer to dangerous locations such as high-speed roadways. 

“There’s been quite a few people struck and killed by cars,” he said. “We’ve just been really trying to draw public attention to the fact that this is a public health crisis in addition to a housing crisis.”

A woman who introduced herself as Erica said her best friend, Mikhel, was recently stabbed nine times and left for dead under a bridge just a few yards from where the memorial was. He later died and his dog was killed as well, she said.

She had known him from her hometown of Jefferson since they were both young kids. When she moved to Salem with her husband, the childhood friends met again at ARCHES.

“He gave out tents, he’d give his jacket off his back. He’s just an all lovable guy,” Erica said. “I have to go and tell his family that he’s gone now, and the person that killed him is still out there.”

Another woman who spoke at the memorial, introduced as Lisa, said she recently lost her husband, Eddie, who she’d known for over 20 years in April 2021.

“I miss him so much,” she said. “He was my best friend, and (I’m) empty inside. I think about him all the time. If he would’ve stopped drinking, he would be right here.”

A woman introduced as Lisa speaks about her late husband, Eddie, as she stands beside Breezy Aguirre, who works on housing for the ARCHES Project. (Ardeshir Tabrizian/Salem Reporter)

Salem city councilor Vanessa Nordyke told the audience at the event about a time homeless advocates took her to Wallace Marine and Cascade Gateway parks so she could “bear witness to the stories of loss of heartbreak and how people were struggling to stay safe.”

There Nordyke met a man who had become homeless after he was diagnosed with cancer and had medical bills so high that he lost everything. She remembered meeting another homeless man who rode his bicycle to work every morning, leaving his possessions at risk.

“It’s moments like these that you realize that you are never too important to be kind,” she said at the event. “To anyone here today who is homeless right now, please know that we believe in you, we support you and we are here to help.”

Nordyke appeared to hold back tears as she spoke about the four people killed in the March 27 crash at the intersection of Northeast Front Street and Highway 99 East in Salem.

Enrique Rodriguez, Jr., 24, was charged the following day with four counts of first-degree manslaughter, two counts of second-degree assault and driving under the influence in Marion County Circuit Court.

Police identified those killed in the crash as Jowand Beck, 24, Luke Kagey, 21, Joe Posada III, 54, and Rochelle Zamacona, 29. Two more people in the camp were injured.

The deaths made national news and renewed discussion in Salem about how the city and other agencies respond to homelessness.

Nordyk said it takes bravery to stand up to “those who leave learned to look the other way.”

“Every life is worthy of dignity,” she said. “When others preach hate, we show love. When others look away, we run towards those in need.”

Breezy Aguirre, who works on housing for the ARCHES Project, said at the memorial that she wanted to honor the many women who died homeless in the Salem area. 

Four in 10 homeless Salem women and nearly one-quarter of all homeless people reported they were fleeing domestic violence, according to client data by ARCHES Project staff from October 2016 through the end of 2018.

“These women are the women that have taught us how to be strong, their survival and their grit that they have has just taught me every day to keep fighting,” Aguirre said. “I have a lot of different stories that I can share. I don’t think I could do justice to any of them.”

Near the end of the memorial, audience members listen to stories about people who lost their lives after living on the streets in the Salem area. (Ardeshir Tabrizian/Salem Reporter)

Jones said most people who are homeless have in some ways lost connections to their family. The homeless experience in the U.S., he said, is often a very lonely one.

“I just feels like people are passing away, and then they’re quickly forgotten,” he said. “But for those of us that still work with the population for those folks who were left behind, we continue to remember them and tell stories about them and talk about ways that we felt like if we could have just found one more resource, one more opportunity, one more housing placement, then maybe we could have diverted that person from being unsheltered and into housing, and maybe it would have been a different path for their future.”

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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