In Memoriam: Jessi Hart, 1979-2021

The subject of a WW cover story on poverty is found dead, but Jessi Hart was more than a victim.

Jessi Hart (Sam Gehrke)

The body of Jessi Hart was found Oct. 17 in the woods outside Banks, a small town 25 miles west of Portland, according to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. Detectives suspect foul play and believe Hart died at least two weeks before her body was found.

Hart, 42, was one of several Portlanders profiled by WW for a cover story about living in motel rooms at the edges of the city as a last resort before homelessness (“Limbo Inn,” June 16, 2021). Hart’s housing insecurity started in 2016, when she began to transition from male to female.

In June, Hart was staying at a Ramada Inn next to Mall 205 in outer Southeast Portland with her 13-year-old son Caleb. They had bounced from a women’s shelter and a friend’s apartment into motels.

“I’m hopeful that Caleb will make it through this,” she told WW at the time. “I don’t have much hope for myself. It’s been four years and I’m exhausted.”

Hart’s girlfriend, Audrey Savage, says: “I’ll miss everything about her. She was intelligent and thoughtful and caring, and I loved her quirks. The whole shorts with the knee-high socks added to the stretch pants thing. She also took almost all my hats. When they found her, they found her in my camouflage hat.”

WW first met Hart on a rainy Saturday afternoon at Woodlawn Park in June. She sat with this reporter on a metal bench overlooking a wet baseball diamond. Hart didn’t mind the rain—she liked it, and she always had.

She smoked a cigarette during the conversation, her voice occasionally going up an octave and quavering when she spoke about Caleb.

“He’s a super-smart kid,” she said. “He’s into physics. You walk up to him and talk about regularities, it’s quantum mechanics. He taught me about it: the top layer of a black hole.”

Hart told WW that transitioning to a woman had cost her everything: her construction company in Hillsboro, her family and her house. (The story of how she lost her business could not be independently verified, and her family has not returned calls from WW.) Hart said her transition soured her family to her and Caleb both—now, they were on their own.

Transgender people are four times more likely to be the target of a violent crime than cisgendered people, according to a Williams Institute study this year. Tracking homicides of transgender people is difficult, because law enforcement agencies often misgender the person killed. Estimates of the number of transgender people killed in the U.S. in 2020 range from 28 to 44.

“Rates of unemployment, houselessness, poverty and extreme poverty are a lot higher amongst trans people,” says Mikki Gillette of Basic Rights Oregon. “Trans people are reluctant to access shelters because of harassment they could experience from staff or people staying there.”

Hart sometimes wondered if she had done the right thing by transitioning. She told WW she would have been miserable staying in a male body, but wondered if that suffering was better than putting Caleb through financial and emotional hardship after her transition. Hart also has a grown daughter who lives in the Dalles.

Caleb clearly adored her. When WW visited Caleb and Hart at their room at the Ramada Inn, mother and son sat across from each other on separate beds, building on one another’s remarks, adding supporting detail as the other told a story.

Caleb brightened when his mom started talking about their cat, Loki.

“Yeah, she loves us,” Caleb said, cracking a small smile. “She likes to scream at us.” Hart looked at Caleb and chuckled.

After WW’s story appeared, Hart’s subsidized stay at the Ramada ended, but she stayed in contact with this reporter. She slept in her car, a black Saab, for several weeks, taking odd jobs repairing cars. Caleb stayed with the family of a friend from school. Then, with the assistance of an area nonprofit, they both moved into the Downtown Value Inn in early July. WW lost contact with them after that move.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office says Hart’s black Saab was recovered, but it’s unclear whether it was discovered near her body. It had been spray-painted white. The sheriff’s office is asking anyone who had contact with Hart in the past few months to come forward and talk to investigators.

Jessi Hart lived a difficult life. She felt that people looked at her differently because she had transitioned, and felt that she never passed well enough in her new body. She spoke frankly about poverty and its attendant miseries, which she did not sugarcoat.

At one point this summer, Hart said she was struggling to maintain hope living in her car. This reporter sent her a text with hopes that her trials would ebb.

“I wish I could believe that statement about ebb and flows,” Hart texted back, “but I’m just getting a tide coming in that is just slow enough to keep me standing on my tip toes so I don’t drown, but not going out so I can relax.”

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