Major Egan's Tragic Death in 2008 Spurred a Community to Action

I was honored to speak at the annual memorial service for Major Tom Egan on December 18th. Here are my remarks:

This is the first year I have been able to participate in this formal ceremony marking the death of Major Egan but every year since his death I have taken a moment to remember him including coming to this spot to reflect on the terrible circumstance of his last night. Here at the end of this industrial street, alone and cold Tom Egan died in the snow just a few blocks from where I slept safe and warm in my home. Because of the impact his death had on me along with hundreds of other caring people in our community we have worked to better our community and try to ensure that no one else suffers a similar fate. Out of his passing the Egan Warming Centers were born and hundreds of people have found shelter and sustenance through the heroic efforts of hundreds of volunteers and staff. 

Today we are taking the time to honor those dedicated, remarkable volunteers and staff who each year from mid-November to mid-March rise to the occasion when temperatures drop below 30 degrees and spend their evenings feeding and sheltering homeless men and women at faith-based institutions throughout the community. We have come together to honor the organizations, government and nonprofit agencies and generous donors who work together to ensure that the Egan Center has what it needs to get the job done.

But the true reason we gather here at this spot on this day is to remember a particular individual who tragically and needlessly died on the streets of our city on the morning of Dec. 18, 2008. And in remembering Major Tom Egan and his life, we are prompted to remember that the hundreds of  unsheltered people in our community, who can so easily be ignored, forgotten or dismissed are also particular individuals – whose individual life circumstances have brought them to be included in that most cruel of demographic categories – homeless.  By remembering Major Tom Egan and his humanity we reaffirm the humanity of our neighbors who have no permanent shelter as people who deserve care, consideration and compassion.

As president of the Eugene City Council this past year and a long standing member of the Human Services Commission, I have been proud to play a small role in the city’s efforts to help and protect our unsheltered neighbors.  In the past two years the Eugene city council has taken several small but significant steps to provide more options for temporary and emergency shelter for people in need. Opportunity Village is inspiring communities across the country to look at new models for transitional housing. Our Rest Stop program has provided shelter, safety and community to those who would otherwise have been vulnerable and alone. In the past two weeks the city created the Dusk to Dawn program that will provide overnight safe sleeping spots for dozens of individuals who have no other options. And our city-wide Car Camping program continues to benefit individuals and families by providing them with a safe secure space to live while they seek permanent housing.  In a landscape of limited funding we have taken steps meant to bring temporary relief while we continue to work collaboratively with our partner Lane County to secure more resources for permanent shelter. Our Rest Stop,  Dusk to Dawnand Car Camping programs have to potential to serve even moreindividuals if we can gain public support to add more sites.

Of course the best way to fight homelessness is to keep people from becoming homeless in the first place. This is why I continue to advocate for a raise in the minimum wage in our state as we know many people dealing with homelessness are actually employed but unable to afford stable housing. These hard working Oregonians don’t want government handouts and in some cases won’t seek them even when they qualify. They deserve a wage that lets them provide for themselves and their families when working a full time job. But we also know that there are many people living on our streets who will need on-going community support and protection. People experiencing persistent mental illness must be provided with protective shelter and support given their extreme vulnerably when left on the street.

I believe in the power of government, our collective voice in action, to improve the lives of those in need. But I am not so naive as to think government alone can or should be the answer. Private non-profits, faith based action and grass-roots community efforts are all needed in order to address this crises. This community has a huge and generous heart. I know that if we can align our goals and coordinate our efforts we can have a meaningful impact on the lives of the people currently living without shelter and provide them with the dignity of a safe and permanent home. With the memory of Major Egan’s tragic death to prompt  us I know we are up to the task and I look forward to joining in the work ahead with all of you here and the hundreds of others who step up daily to help make Eugene a more just and compassionate community. Thank you.