Homeless No More

Dusty and Stephen will be missed.

Scott “Dusty” Miller was probably 50-something, but living under Lane County bridges for years may have inflated guesses about his age. He died last Friday, after turns at the White Bird Clinic and the hospital emergency room. He had kidney problems.

Stephen Sanford died almost six weeks ago — nobody recalls the exact date. He was only 24. He came to Eugene with his father Kevin, looking for work in the construction industry. His demons caught up to him once he was slowed by a medical condition. His body was found on Skinner’s Butte after he mixed some medications. He died alone.

You didn’t know their names, but you may have recognized their faces. Both men could have been seen at some street corner around town, while you were stopped at a traffic light.

The cause of a death matters less than the death itself, and how friends and loved ones can respond. Our amazing web of inventive social service agencies do a spectacular job of treating disadvantaged people with respect, but the work hasn’t always extended to their final departure. Josie McCarthy would like that to change.

Friends of the homeless tend also to be homeless. They don’t have photos of one another — where would they keep them? They don’t think to call the newspaper to run an obituary. There’s no funding for a casket or a burial plot.

But a memorial service seemed within reach. A place to gather, a date and time, simple food afterwards, and stories to be shared with those who arrive. So McCarthy is pulling it together for Monday afternoon at 3:00 at The Dining Room. Dusty and Stephen’s friends are spreading the word throughout town.

McCarthy came to Eugene from Ireland two years and a season ago. In the summer of 2006, she landed a job running The Dining Room for FOOD for Lane County. She, a small staff, and over 200 volunteers provide dinners for all comers four nights a week across the street from the W.O.W. Hall. The food and fresh flowers are provided by local grocers and bakeries without cost, but the heaping helpings of respect are completely earned — in both directions.

“I’m so lucky,” McCarthy beams, “My diners all respect me so well.” Most of the 300 patrons who cycle through each evening would say that McCarthy more than returns the favor. She makes time to hear their stories. They have a chance to hear what’s happening around town, what they read in today’s paper, and how they wish things were different. In other words, their dinner conversations are the same as yours.

Except when it’s not.

When a second death darkened the room in the span of about a month, the hole illuminated by that darkness wasn’t left by the missing smiles or strides of these two men. It was a void in those still alive, regretting that Dusty and Stephen wouldn’t get a proper send-off; that those left behind had no opportunity to say good-bye.

“Just this morning I got two phone calls from people who have stories to tell,” McCarthy continues. “I told them they’ll have to keep it short, because there will be many who want to say something and we can’t let it keep going until dark. We’ve got people to feed.”

McCarthy took over The Dining Room when it was still limited to single men, but she decided to open the door wider. Now The Dining Room is open to almost everyone. Legal and funding constraints set parameters on age and income, but leave the invitation sufficiently wide: anyone over 18 and under 30,000. “We have a lot of seniors who live in nice homes, but they can’t afford to eat out,” McCarthy reports. “We like the variety. It’s better for everyone.”

Nothing goes with building community quite so well as food, as anyone who has ever brought a covered dish or attended a pot-luck can attest. On Monday afternoon, the community that already misses Dusty and Stephen will gather at The Dining Room (270 W. 8th Ave.) to pay their respects. All are invited. A meal will be served.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) volunteers at FOOD for Lane County and writes weekly.