A neighborhood tries to move on

A community heals after murders, but some say that a true remedy for the pain will never be found.

Every night, freight trains rumble through the Whiteaker neighborhood. Their blaring horns wake the people sleeping on the ground next to the tracks. The inconsistent vibrations cause the piles of bodies hidden under blue tarps to toss and turn.

Trains and rain interrupt their sleep every night, but fear is what keeps them awake.

Herbert Bishop was 56. He was once a truck driver, but addiction problems led him to the streets. His body was discovered beaten to death near a bike path on the west side of Skinner Butte Park in May. Three months later, less than a quarter of a mile away, James Pelfrey’s body was found on the sidewalk on Jefferson Street between First and Second Avenue.

Pelfrey described himself on his MySpace page as an outgoing guy with a good sense of humor.

“I am here from Florida and still haven’t left yet for some reason,” he wrote on his MySpace wall in March.

If he would have known his fate, he might have thought to leave sooner.

Across from the street where Pelfrey was stabbed, the homeless community puts on a three on three basketball tournament every Tuesday.  And today a bench marks the place where Bishop was beaten to death.

“Time heals all wounds,” says Joe McBride, a homeless resident of the Whiteaker. “It’s kind of ironic, but the bench is kind of a safe spot to sit these days. It is a no hate zone.”

Joe McBride sits quietly as he recalls how the murders have affected his own safety in the neighborhood he loves.

The neighborhood’s homeless community is moving on, but the memory of the murders still affects the community where the crimes were committed.

McBride’s rough skin looks as weathered as the bridge that he resides under in the Whiteaker. He was frightened by the vulgarity of the crimes, but after 12 years under the bridge he doesn’t focus on fear. Originally from Philadelphia, McBride jumped the  freight train years ago, headed West and ended up in Eugene.

“Freight trains are a great time,” he says as he finishes off his morning beer. “It is a lot of fun to see who you meet.”

McBride, like many, chooses to be homeless. He never liked being part of the daily grind.

“I don’t like payin’ rent. Payin’ rent is something else,” he says.

So despite safety concerns, McBride doesn’t aspire to live any other way.

“I feel safe out here,” he says. “It’s Eugene Oregon. We have what? six murders a year. It’s not that bad.”

His companions at the damp picnic table agree that living on the streets isn’t as dangerous if you are well connected.

Cindy Chase and “Hobbit” are two homeless residents of the Whiteaker who believe you are as safe as you are connected.

“We watch everybody else’s back out here,” says transient woman Cindy Chase with a surprisingly warm smile and cigarette smoke blowing out the side of her mouth.

Chase says she was with James the morning before he was murdered and she believes that crimes like the one against James are rare.

However, immediately after the murders, Social Service Coordinator at the Eugene Mission Richard Savage says there was an increase in visitors seeking shelter despite the warm weather. Savage also observed an increased sense of fear in those who had lived in the shelter for a long time.

“There was a heightened concern about security. Those who thought about it were more prone to camp with others or come into the shelter,” Savage says. “News that affects a specific group always impacts that group. It wasn’t just that people were coming in, but for a while, it was a main point of conversation.”

Savage says that fear has waned considerably in the passing months among the homeless population and so have crimes.

Police officers were so concerned about the safety of the area after the neighborhood’s second murder that they teamed up with the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to develop a solution.

“We had to figure out something to make the crime rates decrease,” Sergeant Terry Fitzpatrick says.

Malt liquors were targeted because their high alcohol content allows the homeless to get drunk fast, which Fitzpatrick says can lead to quick tempers and irrevocable accidents.

“When you add alcohol into the mix, it takes away inhibitions; It leads people to resort to violence,” he says.

A 24 or 32-ounce can usually contains alcohol levels of at least 9 percent and costs less than $2.50.

“It is a tragedy that the liquor companies do it, but they target the stuff at homeless people,” Fitzpatrick says.

Police records reveal that the ban led to a 70 percent decrease in criminal activity.

There were 56 crimes reported during the ban and 187 crimes reported the previous year during the same 90 day period.

The ban ended in January, and while Fitzpatrick said that he is going to work on getting legislation passed to ban malt liquor permanently, the homeless population says they are relieved it is over.

“It was a useless ban that just kept the good man down,” McBride says. “I feel bad for people who own one of those shops. It just makes their job tougher. Banning liquor is not gonna bring Pac-Man or James back.”

McBride says that the liquor ban is just another example of the police interfering and harassing the homeless since the murders.

“They don’t want to help us; they want to chase us away,” McBride says.

Fitzpatrick says that the police have spent more time monitoring the area, but that no one is trying to chase anyone away.

Although Fitzpatrick is irritated that the population of homeless in Eugene rivals many big cities, he says that the police force doesn’t pick on transients because they are homeless; he says that the police only intervene when someone is breaking the law.

“Our relationship isn’t strained because we are trying to get rid of the homeless. You could ask us the question why our relationship with drug dealers is estranged. The answer is that nobody wants to be told no,” Fitzpatrick says.

Banning malt liquor and increasing patrolling are a few ways the Whiteaker neighborhood has sought to re-invigorate their community after the murders, but Jazmine Henderson,a Whiteaker resident, says that understanding the community dynamic is another way to help the Whiteaker heal.

“I bicycled by one of the corpses, but that was a brawl between homeless people who are having a hard time,” says Henderson, a kitchen manager at Red Barn Natural Grocery who remembers the police surrounding an area of cement covered in drops of blood.

When Henderson moved from Hawaii to Eugene, friends advised her to live anywhere but the Whiteaker, but she just couldn’t resist the neighborhood’s cheap rent and eccentric charm.

“This is the safest place in Eugene,” Henderson says. “Whenever I come into this neighborhood, I feel a breath of relief. I feel at home, and I know I have a community that supports me.”

Henderson is a confident young woman, and she feels safe in the Whiteaker. However, she isn’t one to take chances.

After Bishop was murdered, she stopped riding her bike down by the river at night. Today, she feels that the space down by the river isn’t hers to enjoy after sunset.

She has lived in the Whiteaker for three years and she is familiar enough with the neighborhood’s homeless to know who is dangerous and who is harmless. She doesn’t dwell on the crimes that happen on the streets, but instead is  inspired by the neighborhood’s creed of kindness.

Henderson recalls seeing a drunk man fall off a sidewalk and into the road on a chilly and soggy afternoon this winter. She says she watched in amazement as a woman pulled over, got out of her car, helped the man off of the ground and gave him a wool sweater and a hat to keep him warm.

“I wish more people would look at the homeless as brothers and sisters and less as rats,” Henderson says. “We are family.”

Erica Larragoitly
Erica Larragoitly works hard to provide for her family now, but she remembers what it is like to be homeless. She says she tries to do little things to help them out.

is another Eugene resident. She used to be homeless, but now has a job at the Astro 76 and says that the neighborhood’s giving spirit has helped everyone move past the violence.

“The murders were pretty sad for the bums. It reminded everyone how hard their lives are. I have started to leave stuff out here to help out the homeless. I leave out cloths, mattresses and old cushions in my yard,” she says.

However, Fitzpatrick warns that it is the neighborhood’s reputation of kindness that is contributing to an increase in violent crimes.

Fitzpatrick is convinced that the Whiteaker’s large volume of social service organizations has contributed to the safety of the city at large. Fitzpatrick believes that the large volume of non-profits attracts dangerous people to the area.

“I am afraid that the city has become an enabler for bad behavior,” he says.  “Eugene has tried to be compassionate. That is noble, but they have gone too far.”

Savage couldn’t disagree more.

“If none of the organizations existed, the homeless population would still exist,” he says. “Sure it is true that if you build it, they will come. But, for 50 years the homeless have been here. They were there there then, and they are here now.”

Savage has a business card. He is the social services coordinator for the Eugene Mission, but he does not have a home of his own. He doesn’t sleep on the streets, but a homeless shelter is his permanent address.

The Mission adheres to strict rules. Residents are required to attend church every day and have strict curfews. However, for those who are willing to make the sacrifice, the Mission offers residents an opportunity for employment.

Savage came to the mission six years ago, after spending three years homeless on the Oregon coast. Originally from Arizona, Savage came to Oregon after him and his wife divorced. Savage believes that like many other transients, depression sent him spinning out of control into poverty.

Savage says that many people in the Whiteaker are close-knit because they depend on each other for not only emotional support, but also for safety.

Yet, Fitzpatrick feels that it is the dangerous mix of personalities and familial structure that are responsible for the amount of violent crimes in the Whiteaker.

“Many people on the streets are not down on their luck. Many people are criminals, addicts or mentally unstable. Homeless people form bonds very quickly, but bonds are really quickly broken too,” he says. “When those bonds break, and they do quite often, It is never good.”

There are many who sleep in the streets of the Whiteaker without being aware of the neighborhood’s dangerous history.

People traveling through, often find solace in the Whiteaker, and say that they are not afraid of a few crimes.

“We are threatened sometimes, but we believe that it is more noble to be a nomad and live experiencing life than to live in fear,” LindiAnne Glasgow says.

These nomads say they always make a stop at the grocery store in the Whiteaker to pick up some provisions as they head out of town.

Glascow and her husband spend each year traveling from Alaska to Arizona on bicycle. The couple makes wooden spoons, harvests marijuana in Humboldt county and participates in craft fairs along the way. They say that even after hearing about the murders, they still see the Whiteaker as a restful and inviting stop along their route.

Eric Hanson, a traveler from San Diego says that it doesn’t matter where he goes, he always feel safe among a community’s homeless population.

“I love humbums. They always have the best conversations; you know who to avoid,” he says as he points out a pair of black combat boots he traded a homeless man for his granola bar the night before.

A character like McBride is no exception to that rule. It seems that his neighbors flock toward him. Although he says he is not sure if they want a good story or to play his game of dice.

Regardless, McBride, like many of his peers ,won’t leave the Whiteaker. He understand the risk of his lifestyle and is sure that he won’t have the same fate as James Pelfrey or Pac-man.

Yet, Fitzpatrick says that anyone who is homeless does so at their own risk.

“The homeless safety situation is one of those things that is difficult to solve,” he says.”It is tough to keep people safe when they are involved in high risk behaviors. When a homeless person places themselves in dangerous situations, it is hard to keep them from getting hurt. I don’t think the homeless people of the Whiteaker will ever rest without some fear.”

SIDEBARS

Crimes during Oct. – Jan. comparing the year with and without the voluntary malt liquor ban.

Crime Oct. 2008 – Jan. 2009 Oct. 2009 – Jan. 2010
Open Container 55 7
Violation of Park Rules 54 9
Criminal Trespass 33 13
Prohibited Camping 12
Possession of Marijuana 6 2
Public Urination 5
Theft 7 13
Identity Theft 2
Criminal Mischief 2 1
Burglary 2 2
Disorderly Conduct 3 1
Littering 1
Carrired Concealed Weapon 1
Stalking 1
Assault 2 3
Harassment Physical 1
Comtempt of Court 1
Robbery 1
False information to officers 1
Public intoxication 1
Runaway 1

Facts of Murders

James Pelfrey was stabbed to death on Aug. 25, 2009. The crime happened around 5:15 p.m. on the sidewalk across from Washington-Jefferson Park.  Lloyd Ervin Austin was arrested on an outstanding warrant just hours after Pelfrey’s death and was the main suspect in Pelfrey’s death. Austin plead not guilty to Pelfrey’s murder. A trial has not been held.

Herbert Pac-Man Bishop was murdered on May 11 just four blocks away from where Pelfrey was killed. He was beaten to death in Skinner Butte Park near the Owen Rose Garden. Two Eugene men, Michael Andrew Baughman and Ryan Eugene Casch, both 22 were arrested and charged with his murder.

About Lauren Fox

I am a writer, a runner and a life observer. I love and value all people and have fallen in love with real journalism, the kind that influences people to think differently about the world they live in and the people they think they know. I used to believe I was meant to be a teacher, but I have learned that a good journalist is a teacher; They teach humanity and their classroom is the world.
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1 Response to A neighborhood tries to move on

  1. Anonymous says:

    Interesting story. Look a little deeper into the history of the people that you interviewed and you may find that there is some irony within the irony.

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