Trying to wrap my head around the fact that local homeless people have died on the streets since November, one of whom I met a few years back

On Thursdays, when I get into the office in the morning, one of the first things I do is grab the latest issue of the CN&R. That’s the day it hits the newsstands. Sometimes I don’t open it right away. After all, aside from the ads, I’ve already seen everything during the editing process.

Still, at some point, I flip through the pages to check out the print job and pause to reread a story or two. Last week, when I turned to Meredith J. Cooper’s news piece, my heart sank. It was only then, seeing the photo of the bushy-bearded man in color for the first time, that I recognized Thomas Avakian, a homeless man she’d written about who, sadly, died on West Sacramento Avenue, where he’d lived for several months. He was just 51 years old. (See “Death on the streets,” Newslines, Feb. 1.)

I’d met Tom two years ago at a local church that had opened its doors for the Safe Space Winter Shelter. My CN&R colleagues and I (and some of our spouses) for the past couple of years have volunteered for one evening at the low-barrier seasonal shelter. Our job: provide a meal for the 60ish people who would otherwise spend the night in the cold, along with the volunteers who regularly donate their time for that cause.

It was while serving food that evening that Tom and I were introduced. He recognized Cooper from her photo in her business column, The Goods, and struck up a conversation. I was standing next to her, wearing my typical winter-weather attire of jeans, sweater and—as I do quite regularly—a beanie to warm my always-cold ears. Tom then turned to me—his eyes grew wide, and he said, “You’re Melissa, the editor.”

He went on to tell us that he read the CN&R faithfully, and it was true. When I introduced another staffer, Ken, by only his first name, Tom said, “Ken Smith.” Ditto for the others in the editorial department: Jason Cassidy and Howard Hardee.

Later that night, after dinner, Tom and I chatted about the newspaper business and current affairs. He was sharp as a tack, charming and well-informed (you can read more about him in Patrick Newman’s letter to the editor on the next page). Tom, who was then fairly clean-shaven, made a point to tell me that he didn’t have to remain homeless and that he wasn’t mentally ill.

I held back the urge to pry into that decision, though I wondered how someone so seemingly put-together would choose that path. Life for those who are unsheltered—especially in the winter—has to be bleak. Indeed, at that time, I would’ve pegged Tom at several years older than his then-49 years.

I’m ashamed that I didn’t immediately recognize him when I saw his photo in black and white while proofreading Cooper’s story. I’m also ashamed that in 2018 people are dying on the streets. According to county records, three homeless people, ranging in ages from 30 to 63, have perished since November.

When I said goodbye to Tom that evening two years ago, I always figured I’d see him around—either at City Plaza or during my regular jaunts elsewhere downtown. But our paths never again crossed, and now here I sit trying to wrap my head around the fact that he’s gone. I’m not sure I ever will.