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A year later, homeless veteran's death still stirs Eugene

EUGENE — The day was not as cold as it was a year ago, but for some the grief was just as fresh.

It was a year ago Friday that the body of retired Maj. Thomas Egan, a homeless veteran who struggled with alcoholism, was found on a weedy strip of hard ground by the railroad tracks in west Eugene.

His death, frozen and solitary, was a shock to fellow veterans and homeless advocates, but it gave life to a pledge that no one else would die on the street on a cold night for want of shelter.

About 50 people gathered Friday at the spot to remember Egan, reflect on what has happened because of his death and renew that pledge. The remembrance came in the middle of a month in which 371 people found shelter in what are now known collectively as the Egan Warming Center.

"This is a sad and lonely place to die," Mayor Kitty Piercy said before laying a wreath against the concrete barriers that hid but did not shelter Egan's body at the end of Blair Boulevard. "But because of him our community has said never again will someone freeze to death on our streets."

Before last winter ended, a coalition of churches, local agencies and volunteers set up the first Egan Warming Center in the former National Guard armory. With that site no longer available, the group this year set up centers in four churches and trained 280 volunteers to assist those who use them.

Piercy noted that of the 371 people who have stayed one or more nights in the centers, 200 had no real shelter the night before they arrived. The shelters saw their peak use earlier this month when temperatures dipped to the single digits.

On the night before Egan's body was found, the temperature had dropped to 28 degrees. But an autopsy found he had died at least 36 hours earlier, and the two previous nights saw lows of 10 degrees.

Now, the warming centers open between Nov. 15 and March 31 when temperatures are forecast to drop to 28 degrees or lower.

In addition to the four churches now opening their doors, two other churches and a synagogue have volunteered as backup sites.

On Friday, a final salute from fellow veterans, a rendition of "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes and the lighting of eight votive candles marked the anniversary of Egan's death. Bill McCollum, who works with homeless veterans, reminded people that winter has not officially begun and that volunteers are still needed at the warming centers.

That Egan's death moved people to plug the gap in the community safety net offered some comfort, but his fellow veterans still struggle with the loss. Jim Schmidt of Veterans for Peace said it hurts to think that a fellow serviceman died that way.

"We left him behind," he said. "He was one of us, he was a veteran, a human being. He was a man who, no matter what his difficulties in life, didn't deserve to die alone. He deserved more dignity than he got."

Egan, 60, had two college degrees and several service medals and ribbons. He had been eligible for monthly retirement benefits that could have provided him a home, a fact that made his death all the more sad.

He had no family in Oregon, and it wasn't clear when he had slipped into alcoholism and homelessness. One of the few people who remember meeting him was Pastor Dale Reynolds of On The Street Ministries, who said he saw Egan at the Eugene Mission but did not get a chance to know him.

Reynolds said the warming centers show that some good can come from tragedy. But he said there still is not enough being done to help the homeless and called on people to look in their hearts and consider helping.

"We just need to make a try," he said. "I don't know how to explain it any better."