Hard life, cold death – George Grigorieff lived on the streets – died, during storms, in a Portland cemetery
Renters at the apartment house on Southwest Jefferson Street in Goose Hollow had been patient. They’d let the homeless man camp underneath their front porch for a week.
But the smell of urine and alcohol was becoming overpowering. And then the man, who was frequently drunk, began breaking glass containers, which the renters had to clean up.
They asked him to leave. They left notes, explaining that the landlord was due for an inspection. Finally, on Thursday night, Dec. 18, with the first knife’s-edge cold of another winter storm approaching, they called the police, who found the homeless man had outstanding warrants for public intoxication and trespassing.
The police took him downtown to the Justice Center Jail.
Four days later George Grigorieff – homeless for 20 years – was dead, through nobody’s fault but his own.
Nobody did anything wrong. Nobody had reason to feel guilty when Grigorieff’s frozen body was found Dec. 22 in Lone Fir Cemetery in Southeast Portland. He had taken himself there without even a sleeping bag, even though emergency warming shelters were opening all over the city.
Grigorieff was the only Portland resident to die of exposure during the December storms. In a way, he chose his death. He may have chosen the time and place.
But during the past three decades, a number of choices were made – by Grigorieff and others – that, if different, could have led to a different death. And they could have led to a different life for a man who spent 20 years living on the street.
One of the cool kids
Grigorieff, 63 at his death, grew up in the Woodburn area, about 40 miles south of Portland. A football player at Gervais Union High School in the early 1960s, he was described by his half-brother, Jim Grigorieff, as one of the cool kids at school, as popular as his 1956 Chevy was hot.
Then came the Army. Grigorieff enlisted and served in Vietnam as an engineer, according to his brother. He returned home in the late 1960s a changed man.
“He just went on an endless drunk, basically,” Jim Grigorieff said.
That “drunk” lasted until his death. For about a decade he lived on and off with family and performed odd jobs. Eventually, the downward spiral of alcoholism combined with post traumatic stress disorder pushed Grigorieff into the subset of homeless people who will not enter shelters and who reject nearly all attempts to help them.
His family coaxed him into a Veterans Administration facility in southern Oregon for mental health and addictions treatment. But he left, unable to abide the facility’s rules, family members say. Never violent, he tumbled from one minor disaster to another: a house fire, getting hit by a car, petty crime.
Informed of his death, close family members registered surprise – they thought he had probably died years ago.
In Portland, if Grigorieff was going to get help, it likely would have come from Southeast Portland’s JOIN, a nonprofit dedicated to helping the chronically homeless.
JOIN’s untraditional social work is based on the idea that the chronically homeless, in addition to food, shelter and possibly mental health services, need a support system, what Executive Director Mark Jolin calls “a good friend that people need in their lives.”
That friendship often can lead to trust, which becomes a means to provide help and eventually reintroduce the chronically homeless to society.
“For too long as a community we have assumed because somebody has been outside for 10 years, they are not interested in going back in, or they have chosen homelessness as a lifestyle,” Jolin says. “In our experience, in the vast majority of cases, that’s not true. They don’t want to die on the street.”
For Grigorieff, the good friend was JOIN outreach worker Lio Alaalatoa. Ten years ago, Alaalatoa began visiting Grigorieff two or three times a week at his campsite near the west end of the Ross Island Bridge. Grigorieff had lived alone there for three or four years, according to Alaalatoa. He’d made a little home there behind a 7-Eleven, with a small kitchen area and a flower garden, and a bed up on bricks.
Alaalatoa recalls Grigorieff insisting on feeding him when the social worker would come to visit. One time, he was sitting in the campsite eating a sandwich Grigorieff had prepared. Toward the end of the meal, Alaalatoa noticed Grigorieff making little whistling sounds and watched as large gray rats scurried out of the bushes to take food scraps from Griforieff’s hand.
Alaalatoa knew that he could help Grigorieff get one of the subsidized supportive housing apartments that JOIN has access to, if he could help Grigorieff come up with an income.
As a veteran with an honorable discharge, Grigorieff had a pension coming, but had never applied for the benefits. Three times Alaalatoa arranged appointments for Grigorieff at the Veterans Administration office in downtown Portland. In Alaalatoa’s mind, it would be an unspoken last chance effort by Grigorieff to re-engage society after years spent distancing himself from it.
But the VA application process can be cumbersome, according to Tom Mann, public information manger for the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs. It can take up to a year before the first pension payment begins.
Grigorieff, according to Alaalatoa, became frustrated as he was asked to fill out form after bureaucratic form. When told he had to contact his old Army base to obtain paperwork proving his service time, Griforieff gave up.
“That was the last hope he had to reconnect,” Alaalatoa says. “From then on, it was just George.”
But Grigorieff had his stable campsite, and was still one step removed from a vagrant’s life. That bit of stability disappeared too, when Grigorieff was rousted from the campsite by police and forced to move out about eight years ago.
Moving from campsite to campsite after that, it is likely he shed some of the few possessions that made his campsite into something resembling a home.
Over time, Grigorieff would amass dozens of police citations for violations of Portland’s anti-camping ordinance, in addition to citations for public drunkenness, trespassing and illegally riding MAX trains. He would be brought to jail at least 45 times during his 20 years of homelessness in Portland.
‘Out of sight, out of mind’
The city’s six-year-old anti-camping ordinance, which prohibits overnight camping on public property, is controversial among the homeless community – the subject of a lawsuit in federal court – but also among police officers who enforce the law, according to Mike Reese, commander of the Portland police Central Precinct.
Reese says that about a third of the homeless people whom police encounter in Portland are like George: because of mental illness or addictions, they are unwilling to go to a shelter. And once in a shelter, Reese says, those people often become violent.
Knowing this, Reese says, police don’t really want to enforce anti-camping laws against those with few options, and do so only when complaints are registered.
“Typically, what we tell these folks is find low-impact camping places,” he says. “Out of sight, out of mind. Find places where we’re not going to get complaints.”
Homeless advocates have talked about green zones – areas that could be declared legitimate for camping. But Reese says such zones create large camps full of homeless, and large camps breed fights and drug dealing.
Reese believes a change in law might have saved Grigorieff. But he doesn’t think the anti-camping ordinance is the one. He says Grigorieff should never have been brought to a jail on the Thursday night of his arrest, but instead should have been taken to a hospital or institution that could have helped him with his mental illness and alcoholism.
That would have required a civil commitment, nearly impossible to obtain in Oregon, says Reese, who calls the state’s commitment process “broken.”
By law, Grigorieff would have had to have been judged “an imminent danger to himself or others.” That standard is too high, Reese says.
“Here’s somebody who obviously isn’t in his right mind,” Reese says. “He’s out camping in severe weather and dies of exposure. He’s a danger to himself, but we don’t have a mental health system that allows us to hold him.”
Washington state, according to Reese and city attorneys, has commitment laws that allow police to act in cases such as Grigorieff’s. Reese says the police have been working with the Multnomah County district attorney in an attempt to change the law so that police, on that Thursday night, could have taken Grigorieff to a medical facility on a mental health hold rather than to the jail.
But any attempt to loosen the civil commitment laws would bring an outcry from civil liberty groups and advocates for the homeless, and could become a logistical nightmare, given that Portland already suffers from an acute shortage of hospital beds for people suffering mental illness.
Monica Goracke, an attorney with the nonprofit Oregon Law Center who filed a federal lawsuit against the city’s anti-camping ordinance in December, doesn’t think civil commitment laws should be changed, despite Grigorieff’s death.
“The lack of a sleeping bag is what really gets me, the fact that he had no protection,” Goracke says. “He spent a lot of nights outside, he would know that. Does that mean everyone who chooses to sleep outside on a cold night without a sleeping bag should be committed? I don’t think in a free society you can do that.”
City Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the city’s Bureau of Housing and Community Development, says more supportive housing is the best hope for helping the chronically homeless, and the reason why the city for four years has followed a “housing first” doctrine. That doctrine is to get people like Grigorieff off the street and into apartments, even if they have addictions and mental health issues. With stable housing, the other issues can be addressed.
Reese supports the housing plan, but notes the current 10-week wait for getting the homeless into housing through the nonprofit Transitions Projects Inc. in Old Town, and the city’s limited number of housing vouchers to pay for the supportive housing.
“I support the 10-year plan to end homelessness,” Reese says. “But I think we need a 10-minute plan. What are we going to do to get people off the street today?”
Changing jail protocol
Following his arrest in Goose Hollow, Grigorieff was brought to the downtown Justice Center at 11 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 18. It took three hours for county jail officials to process him; most of that time he spent watching television with other inmates.
At 2:08 a.m. Friday, Dec. 19, Grigorieff was released into a night where the temperature was beginning to drop below freezing following five days of snow. Another heavy snowstorm was on the way. His dirty clothes had been washed and dried. He did not appear to be drunk. And, on intake he gave officers no reason to believe he might be suicidal or high.
Because of the storm, the lobby of the justice center had been declared a warming center. There were no beds, but people could stay in the lobby as long as they wished to escape the snow and dropping temperature outside.
Grigorieff signed for his meager possessions and signed a form promising he would return Friday afternoon for a court date. He had a winter jacket, according to jail officials, and sneakers. No sleeping bag.
He could not be forced to stay inside, according to Paul McRedmond, deputy sheriff for Multnomah County. By law, McRedmond says, Grigorieff’s outstanding warrants for trespass and public drunkenness would not allow the jail to hold him for longer than three hours in what jail officials call a “book and release.”
The officer at the jail’s release door probably was not even aware that Grigorieff was homeless. And, McRedmond says, the releasing officer is not trained to consider weather conditions or the appearance of the inmate about to be released, to call authorities to arrange transport to a shelter, or find a sleeping bag for a homeless man who has none.
“He didn’t rise to the level of any kind of protocol,” McRedmond says. “It’s his responsibility to take responsibility for his own safety.”
But as of this past Monday, a new large sign confronts inmates at the county jail’s release door, the last sign they see before stepping outside. In three languages, the sign tells inmates they can ask the nearby release officer for help, such as finding a place to stay.
A briefing memo has been sent to corrections deputies, telling them that when weather conditions become dangerous, or even when they don’t, they should be on the lookout for inmates about to leave who might need help.
The new sign and the memo, according to McRedmond, are a response to George Grigorieff’s death.
“Sometimes the push to make things better comes from tragedy,” McRedmond says. “And that’s the real tragedy.”
Sometimes, even the most autonomous people – and George Grigorieff, wanting nothing to do with society and other people, was one of those – touch lives.
Grigorieff was buried Jan. 6 in a military ceremony at Willamette National Cemetery in Southeast Portland. An honor guard saluted Grigorieff with a volley of shots that sent a momentary shock wave through the quiet Mount Scott air. Two soldiers precisely folded a U.S. flag and a solitary bugler played taps.
The ceremony was attended by three members of Grigorieff’s family and a fourth person, a woman unknown to the family. With a scarf covering her head so that only her striking, angular face and wisps of silver hair showed, she introduced herself as Carole van Dyke and explained that she had discovered Grigorieff’s body at Lone Fir Cemetery.
Van Dyke said she lived near Lone Fir, and that she takes a walk there every afternoon, to a favorite spot where she often stops to sit beneath two yew trees. On Sunday, the day before Grigorieff died, she had laid in the snow a few yards away from the yew trees and let snowflakes settle on her face as she thought about how sad and lonely she had been. She had, in fact, thought vaguely about ending her life.
“I felt like it would be very easy to pass on,” van Dyke said.
Eventually, van Dyke moved her arms and legs and made a snow angel, stood and walked home. The next afternoon, Monday, she returned to the yew trees and found Grigorieff already dead from exposure. She noticed his two pair of blue nylon running pants and thin cotton socks. Nearby she found a quarter, a nickel, a dime and two pennies Grigorieff had apparently dropped or scattered.
In van Dyke’s mind, she and Grigorieff had connected for a reason.
“I felt like he was a messenger, a gift to me,” says the soft-voiced 56-year-old. “The message was, maybe I’m meant to stick around a little longer.”
Cassandra Tebo, the Portland police officer who responded to the 9-1-1 call, found Grigorieff in the same position as van Dyke had – shoes off, jacket unbuttoned, shirts lifted up so his belly was exposed. Maybe he was waiting to die, maybe he was too drunk, and too far into the late stages of exposure, to know what he was doing.
With the storm in full fury, Tebo says, even the hardcore homeless were in shelters.
“When you drove the streets that night, you didn’t see anyone out,” she says.
But there was Grigorieff, his position unmistakable.
“He had done a snow angel,” Tebo says.