Death Behind a Dumpster 

In the Heart of a Tourist Neighborhood, a Homeless Man Freezes to Death

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WHEN POLICE EXAMINED Randy Tinnell's body, lying behind a dumpster at SE 36th and Hawthorne, he appeared to have been there for at least a day. This was December 30, when the temperature didn't get above 35 degrees. Tinnell's body was "in full rigor."

"There were many empty bottles of alcohol near the body," reads the police report. "Tinnell had several layers of clothing on, all of which were soaked through with rain water. His hair was long and severely matted. He appeared to be a transient."

In the midst of one of Portland's most vibrant neighborhoods, a death. From where Tinnell froze, in the mud behind a row of arborvitae trees, he could have seen people eating ice cream at Ben and Jerry's across the street, shopping for vintage clothes at Red Light, or buying records at Jackpot.

Though Oregon has the nation's highest per capita rate of homelessness, hypothermia deaths are rare. Homeless outreach workers with the city and local nonprofits remember only one other death in recent years, when a man froze in Lone Fir Cemetery in December 2009.

Cold nights often find Marc Jolin wandering around Portland looking for people like Tinnell. As director of homelessness nonprofit JOIN, Jolin and a handful of volunteers and paid outreach workers spend winter nights checking up on the estimated 2,438 people who sleep in shelters, cars, or on the street every night in Portland. A 2008 survey of homeless Portlanders found that seven percent of them suffered from exposure-related hypothermia or frostbite.

"People will look for some kind of covering, like an alcove or under a bridge. If they have the right gear, people can survive a long time out there," says Jolin. "The real danger is when you have people who, for whatever reason, their ability to assess risk is impaired."

Tinnell was 58. At one time, he had a house, a car, and a wife and family to go home to. Divorce records from 1979 show his marriage dissolved, but granted him the right to keep his 1969 Oldsmobile Cutlass and visit his two young children.

Over the next eight years, court records tell the story of a complicated life. Notices of wage garnishment for failing to pay child support are followed by handwritten letters that Tinnell sent to judges arguing for custody of his children, writing that his children went into foster care after his ex-wife told family services workers that he was deceased. A debate unfolds throughout the 1980s, with typewritten notices from adult and family services rebutted by Tinnell's cursive, until a final court notice in 1987 states that his complaints about unfairly steep child support payments were dismissed after he failed to appear in court.

Tinnell remerges in the record with a string of arrests: forcible entry in 1994, followed by driving without a license, driving uninsured, and driving under the influence.

Tinnell could have gone to a shelter the night he died. Though there is a severe lack of affordable, permanent housing in Portland and shelters often fill to capacity, the city spends $540,000 from its general fund to run additional winter shelters. On December 29, the shelter operating closest to Tinnell was CityTeam Ministries, two miles away on SE Grand, where 47 of its 50 beds were filled.

The patch of mud beneath the arborvitae trees where Tinnell died is only a few feet across, running along a fence behind a dumpster used by a Subway, a Goodwill, and an Umpqua Bank. Even now, two weeks after he died, there is a small bed of soggy newspaper ground into the dirt, covered in trash: a broken lighter, an old banana peel.

It was a Subway employee who found Tinnell. She saw him lying there, went over, and tried to wake him. He was not responsive and was "cold to the touch and very wet." She called 911 immediately.

Jolin, of JOIN, says he is often surprised and impressed to find regular Portlanders helping individual homeless people in need. "It's actually amazing to see how many people just go buy tarps, buy blankets, and deliver it to people when it starts to get cold," says Jolin.

Whatever the diverse causes and personal histories that lead people to become homeless, the fact is that six years into the city's 10-year-plan to "end homelessness," Portlanders continue to sleep on the streets in increasing numbers. But when the housing bureau and volunteers conduct their one-night count of homeless people in Portland on January 26, Tinnell will no longer be among them.

Anyone who needs help or services—or knows someone who does—can call Portland’s homelessness resource hotline by dialing 211.

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