Death on the Streets: An American Tragedy

by Israel Bayer

Thousands of people die homeless every year in the U.S. In this piece, Israel Bayer, who leads INSP’s North American project, and has worked with street papers and people experiencing homelessness for more than two decades, recounts instances where his work brought him face to face with this terrible reality. 

The winter of 2017 Portland, Oregon was hit with an unusually long ice storm. It would be deadly for people experiencing homelessness. Four people would tragically die of exposure. An older woman would walk into a downtown parking garage and die an agonizing death alone in the unforgiving storm. Another victim would freeze to death at a bus stop, only blocks away from a family member’s home. The third and fourth victims would die alone – one in the doorway of a local business, and the other in a densely wooded area of the city. 

If that wasn’t enough, a homeless woman gave birth to a stillborn child in the freezing rain that dreadful week. After giving birth, presumably alone, police found the woman completely distraught and cradling her deceased child. She was homeless and experiencing a mental health collapse. It was more than devastating. 

A local reporter interviewed me about the deaths. 

Did I know any of the victims that died? Has Portland ever seen anything like this? What was it really going to take to prevent these kinds of deaths on the streets in our community? Did I have thoughts…?

My mind went blank. I didn’t have any answers.

“Israel, are you there,” the reporter asked.

“Yes, I’m here.”

“Are you OK?” 

“Can I call you back?”

“Absolutely, but I’m on deadline.” 

It’s hard to describe what homelessness does to the people experiencing it, as well as to their family, their friends, and the people working on the front lines of poverty. The trauma of homelessness is beyond overwhelming. Reality is distorted. Logic is rare. Life is primal. There is nothing remotely rational about the circumstances of homelessness in the USA, one of the richest countries in the world. 

Every time I wrote a story about someone who passed away on the streets, I would tell myself that the more these stories are read, the more the public and/or government might want to take action to support housing justice in our community. Most days though, I wasn’t so sure. 

Following the storm, I spent the better part of the week working on a story, including by interviewing the family of one of the victims who had frozen to death on the streets. I was hoping to provide a snapshot of the harsh reality the families of people experiencing homelessness face when a loved one on the streets passes away, and to illustrate why our community should be prioritizing more affordable housing. Unfortunately, I had worked on many stories just like it. 

At the last minute, though, the family decided they didn’t want the story of their father and husband to be told through the lens of a human being freezing to death homeless on the streets. While I was disappointed with the family’s decision to not talk to me on the record, I certainly couldn’t blame them. If I was honest with myself, I’m not sure I would have wanted a reporter presenting the legacy of my father or son through this lens either, regardless of how thoughtful the writer might have been. What a painful experience. 

Having worked on the streets for two decades prior, the amount of trauma and death I had witnessed and reported on had shaken me to the core. I had spent many sleepless nights at the bedsides of people on the streets who found themselves on the edge of death. Pneumonia. Heart attacks. Drug overdoses. Burn victims. Attempted deaths by suicide. Sometimes people pulled through; sometimes they didn’t. The experiences almost always left me completely wrecked and robbed me of a sense of normalcy. My world felt upside down. 

I thought about the first person I had ever written about who died on the streets: a young woman who had taken her own life, and her mother, who had visited me afterwards. I kept a worn out copy of a poem I wrote about her tucked away in my desk drawer. Sometimes, after talking to a family member who had died on the streets, or writing a story about the deaths of unhoused neighbors, I would read it to myself and think about that girl, and about all the people who had died during my tenure of working on the front lines. 

For years, my executive editor Joanne Zuhl and I had been writing about the stories of people who had died on the streets. (Our collective work contributed to efforts by local governments in the region to create a methodology and system to track and report the number and causes of homeless deaths in the region.

The stories we covered were almost always heartbreaking. Take this example.Holding back tears, Krista Campbell, a mother whose son had passed away on the streets talked to me about her son’s experience. At 42 years old, James Michael Bostick had lived a hard life, battling addiction and homelessness for more than 13 years. 

“Some people might see him as just another homeless junkie that died, but he was an incredible man,” said Krista. “He had an incredible heart. He was my precious baby. I suppose in the back of my mind I had been expecting the call for years. I prayed for him every single day. When the call came, nothing I’ve been through in my life prepared me for what had happened. We’ve both lived a hard life. Still, I’ve lost my son. My dear son.” 

James left behind a mother, a brother and three daughters. 

There’s nothing that can prepare someone for that kind of conversation. All you can do is listen and provide support. As I held back tears of my own, not having any real answers, we talked for nearly an hour. I listened to Krista laugh and cry, telling me countless stories about James, sometimes pausing to tell me she couldn’t believe he was gone. She told me about his bright blue eyes and beautiful smile. She told me that he was a kind and comforting man that loved Jesus. 

Like many people, Krista said she didn’t understand the mental health issues her son faced. “Demons grabbed hold of my son years ago, and I felt helpless,” Krista would say. “I didn’t know anything about depression. I didn’t know he was bipolar, then eventually paranoid schizophrenic. I found out about other mental disorders James was facing after I Googled all the medication found in his backpack after his death. There were voices in his head that wouldn’t leave him alone. Mental health and addiction took hold of his life and held him until his very last breath. Then, it was God that took him home.”

“The average person doesn’t always know how to deal with addiction and mental disorders,” said Krista. “We feel stricken with fear for our suffering family members. We feel disgust in ourselves for not doing something more to help him.” 

I would hear this sentiment over and over from the families of people who passed away on the streets. Not only are people dealing with the trauma of losing a loved one, but the bereaved are often grieving alone, since the feeling of judgment from peers and the stigmas attached to having a family member die on the streets can be isolating and torturous. While the loss of a family member is never easy,t the judgment and stigma around homelessness can compound the difficulty for families mourning the loss of family members who passed away unhoused. s. 

The average age of homeless deaths in many communities across the country hovers between 40 and 50-years old. One would have to go back decades—possibly centuries—to find another demographic of people dying that young in America. The leading causes of death for people on the streets are accidental drug overdoses, natural causes, and death by suicide. 

“People experiencing homelessness die young, and from often preventable causes,” said Paul Lewis, a former health officer for Multnomah County. “You can’t help but conclude that the lack of housing has contributed to these realities.” 

Research has long shown living on the streets exacerbates existing health problems and causes new ones. Chronic diseases are difficult to manage under stressful circumstances. Acute problems such as infections, injuries, and pneumonia are difficult to heal when there is no place to call home. 

Sadly, it is not uncommon for unhoused people dealing with life threatening ailments to be released straight from the emergency room right back to the streets, or into a crowded shelter. 

“Everyone’s family has a story, and this is part of our story,” Mary, the sister of a man who died on the streets of Portland once told me. “It’s a devastating story. We could have helped him, absolutely. I’m not holding anybody responsible, but as a society we let him down.”

And we are letting so many down: research shows that at least 20 people in America die homeless every single day. The numbers are absolutely staggering. It’s unconscionable.  

Needless to say, I never did get back to the reporter who reached out after the 2017 ice storm. I’m still not sure what I would have said. After more than 20 years of working on the front lines of homelessness, it’s hard to find any kind of logic in a land that treats housing as a commodity but human beings on the streets as worthless. A land where thousands of people experiencing homelessness are left to die every year, alone and forgotten. Their stories untold. Ghosts left to haunt our streets with no safe place to call home. A real American tragedy. 

We have such a long way to go.

Israel Bayer is an award-wining writer and housing advocate and works with the International Network of Street Papers.

Courtesy of the International Network of Street Papers