News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

The life and death of a houseless man

This week I’ve grieved the loss of two lives — one a dear friend here in Sisters, who died at the end of an exhausting few months dealing with ALS as it took away his faculties bit by bit. The second death is someone I hardly knew, yet his death has affected me deeply.

This person — whom we won’t name for privacy, and to avoid confusion about his identity — lived out in the National Forest beyond Pine Street in a tent for over three years. He died on Saturday, April 29, at St. Charles Emergency Room. I know more about his life than I would have had I not been a part of the small group of volunteers who assisted the Forest Service on May 1 in removing the molded remains of his three years living quietly in our woods.

What I know is that he lived in a tent in our local woods because he had mental issues that he knew very well did not allow him to participate as a functioning member of our community. So, wisely, he did the best he could with what

he had.

Every week a group of us has been going out along the dirt roads west of Pine Street picking up bagged trash from those living their lives in the only way our society allows for those who don’t have the resources necessary to purchase or rent a home. As you perhaps know by now, many of those out in our local forest have low-paying jobs in Sisters. Not even one of those along our trash-pickup route ever said anything to us other than thank you, thank you, thank you, for allowing them a small amount of dignity by picking up their trash. Have you ever wondered what our lives in town would be like if our trash service ended? I saw this in a visit to Nepal when the trash pickup service went on strike, the three-foot-high piles of smelly, moldering waste that attracted a variety of hungry critters.

He was 67 when he died this week. He was always kind when we stopped to ask if he had any trash for us this week. Sometimes I would see him returning to his tent, talking to himself. Yes, he had mental issues but was in no way a danger to anyone. We have stopped making exceptions in our society for those with mental issues; instead, we fear them and send them away as outcasts.

As we dismantled his tent, we found every inch of floor space covered with his life. Books and books and books, mostly molded from the wet winters – “The Life and Times of Einstein,” old Mad magazines from the 1970s, books on learning new languages — Hindi, Serb — books on calculus, on physics; books on identifying species of plants; flowers, birds, cats, dogs. Books of music including sonatas and arias. His guitar was badly cracked, either from the cold of winter or warmth of summer; it also went into the dumpster. Plastic templates for creating complex mathematical figures and equations. His mind clearly wanting to drink in information. And the saddest thing of all to me were the journals full of his own complex mathematical equations. He was clearly a genius whose mind failed him at some point. Perhaps some of his physics and calculus drawings and equations were solutions society needs; we’ll never know. I am reminded of the movie with Russell Crowe from 2001, “A Beautiful Mind.”

The Sheriff’s Office has been unable to locate any next of kin. I don’t know how he grew up: Was he a well-adjusted little boy playing with friends like our own children? Who were his mother and father? We do know he grew up in Southern California. Was he an identified genius as a child? When did his mental issues take over his existence and refuse him the right to be a gentleman in ours or any community? I will likely never know. But what I do know is that I need to take this moment of grieving for the loss of a beautiful mind gone wrong likely through no fault of his own — perhaps genetics and stress.

I cried myself to sleep last night thinking about how we as a culture have stopped taking care of our misfits.

 

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