Could death of homeless woman in Oregon City have been prevented?
High stakes for addressing homelessness in Clackamas County were raised even higher in the minds of local public-safety advocates following the death of a homeless woman in a local park.
Rachael Renee Edwards, 45, died Nov. 8 after a fire broke out near her encampment in Abernethy Creek Park in Oregon City.
Clackamas County's "unsheltered" population has suddenly shot up from just under 500 in 2013 and 2015, to 746 in this year's latest count. Doubled-up families also qualify as homeless under the federal definition for public school districts, including the Oregon City School District, which saw an increase from about 300 homeless students in the 2015-16 school year to more than 400 in the current school year. While officials see more comprehensive counting methods are part of the reason for the sudden jumps, they don't account for all of the more than 30 percent annual increases.
Efforts already underway by county and city officials to address the growing homeless population took on a different cast following Edward's death. Clackamas Fire District #1 is hosting its inaugural Resource Fair, designed to bring community resources to citizens who need them the most, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 16, at Barclay Park (next to Father's Heart Street Ministry), 711 12th St., Oregon City.
The Resource Fair aims to connect residents in need with a variety of local resources within Clackamas County. Services at the fair will include free flu shots, assistance with medical insurance enrollment, housing programs, addiction services, mental health, physical health and employment resources.
On the same day as Edward's death, Clackamas County declared an emergency in support of providing shelter for homeless people. The state of emergency will allow county officials to suspend standard competitive bidding procedures, redirect funds for emergency use, authorize county staff to explore the acquisition of sites suitable for installation of temporary housing units, and waive county regulations to the extent necessary and possible to respond to the housing emergency.
County Health and Human Services Director Richard Swift said the county has a need to provide warming shelters for approximately 1,000 people. In addition to working with shelters available in the past, he said, this year, "We will also be exploring options for a contingency warming shelter at the county fairgrounds, in empty buildings in the community and through motel vouchers."
Oregon City police believe the Nov. 8 incident to have been an accident. Citizens couldn't help but wonder, however, if more could have been done to prevent what's being called a tragedy.
A visit to Edward's burned campsite showed that city officials knew that homeless people were camping at Abernethy Creek Park. A "NO CAMPING" sign posted Nov. 3 had scheduled a cleaning of Edward's campsite for Nov. 9, the day after she died.
Left in the debris of Edward's campsite was a charred copy of "You Can Heal Your Life," a self-help book that remains in print and has sold tens of millions of copies since its original 1984 publication. The book is based on the idea that physical illness is rooted in emotional and spiritual distress, trauma which can be eliminated through "mirror work" and affirmations. Also visible at Edward's campsite were several empty cans of Pepsi, Redd's black-cherry hard cider, Skechers tennis shoes, Biotene dry-mouth reliever, antibacterial hand wipes, cardboard, automobile floor mats and a hair brush.
Once the fire broke out, Oregon City Police Capt. Shaun Davis said it was too late for officer on patrol at 2:07 a.m. to put out the blaze near the Abernethy Bridge and the 16th/Washington streets intersection. When the officer arrived, the fire already had surrounded several trees in the park. All the officer had to put out the fire was a standard-issue fire extinguisher in his patrol car, Davis said, so his only option was to alert the fire department.
It wasn't until Clackamas firefighters put out the blaze on the hillside that they discovered Edwards dead inside her tent, Davis said. Authorities believe the fire originated from the homeless encampment on the hillside leading down to Abernethy Creek from the Washington Street side of the park.
Police said that Edwards' family are mourning their loss in this tragedy and have requested privacy, so the public is left to speculate about what led her to such a desperate situation.
Davis said that OCPD detectives are still investigating the death and cause of the fire. OCPD is conducting the fire investigation in partnership with the Clackamas Fire District and the Clackamas County Medical Examiner's Office.