A 76-year-old Portland man who died of exposure on Christmas Day got lost taking public transit home from the Veterans Affairs Hospital on Marquam Hill, his family says.
Henry Steele was found on the afternoon of Dec. 25 under bushes outside the Portland Inn on Northeast Columbia Boulevard, his niece Christine Layton tells WW.
He appears to be the person that the Multnomah County medical examiner announced had died of hypothermia that day, although county officials would not provide details of that death and declined to confirm Steele was that person.
The Oregonian first reported his death Wednesday.
Steele suffered from memory loss. Layton says his family blames the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for not ensuring Steele boarded a TriMet LIFT van home. Instead, she says, he boarded the TriMet No. 8 bus and became disoriented.
“He shouldn’t have died,” Layton tells WW. “He should have been protected by Veterans Affairs. They’re the ones who take care of him. They should know better.”
Daniel Herrigstad, a spokesman for the Portland office of Veterans Affairs, says he can’t discuss the circumstances of Steele’s death due to privacy laws. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of the veteran who tragically passed away,” Herrigstad said in a statement.
“VA Portland Health Care System has policies and procedures in place to ensure the safety and welfare of every veteran we serve to the best of our ability,” he added. “This includes assisting veterans under our care who may request assistance, or who are known or suspected to have cognitive, physical or other challenges that may require assistance. This is to ensure our veterans are provided safe and reliable transportation when they depart our facilities to reach their destination.”
Layton says Steele went to the VA hospital on Dec. 25 for routine blood work. “He wanted to get it done before the snowstorm started,” she says.
Steele’s death appears to be the only fatality associated with the cold snap and snowfall that arrived in Portland on Christmas. County officials have opened six warming shelters across the Portland region, which were 70% full on Tuesday night.
Temperatures are expected to drop as low as 19 degrees Fahrenheit tonight.
Layton says her uncle was a kind man whose death was preventable.
“He fed the birds, the squirrels. He didn’t even kill spiders,” she tells WW. “Definitely policies need to change. This is beyond crazy.”