On his first night back at the Cityteam homeless shelter in Southeast Portland, Matthew Jackson could not relax.
He’s 43 years old, with long, dark hair tied back in a ponytail and several missing teeth, and he’s been in and out of homelessness since he was a teenager. So he’s a veteran at falling asleep or finding calm in the noisy, crowded environment of a shelter.
But not on his first night back after what he calls “the incident.”
“It was just as traumatic to stay there after this had transpired as it was seeing it happen,” he said.
The “it” Jackson is referring to is the April 7 shooting death of John Elifritz. Jackson was in the shelter that evening waiting for a bed. In a chaotic video of the incident, he can be heard yelling and seen trying to hustle other guests to safety.
In the video, Elifritz is in the shelter with a knife. He’s stabbing himself in the neck. There’s a large cross on the wall behind him. Police open fire.
“The distance between John and the officers couldn’t have been more than 10, 12 feet away,” Jackson said. “… I saw him drop right there … saw his last quiver, his last movement. And then … I just took off.”
The shelter reopened just two days after the shooting. Jackson soon returned — because he had nowhere else to go.
“I couldn’t get myself to relax to the point where I felt safe, you know? Where I could sleep, where I could close my eyes,” he said.
So he spent the night reading and writing. Jackson has been putting together a collection of stories about his life experiences. His daughter insists he do it.
On that first evening back, Jackson lay awake writing the one section of his collection he’s been avoiding: the one about the only woman he’s ever asked to marry him. He was writing about love.
“The fact that I’ve spent some of the happiest years of my life and the safest years of my life [with her]. It makes sense you know? I just kind of wanted to be back there,” he said.
Kaia Sand, executive director of Street Roots, a weekly newspaper produced by journalists and sold by people experiencing homelessness, said trauma is an inherent part of life on the streets.
Some witnesses of the shooting were her own Street Roots vendors. So like Jackson, she said they’re struggling with the memory of watching a person killed in one of the only places where homeless people can find refuge at night.
“This gets back to the idea that the safe place, the refuge, was actually shattered,” she said. “So it feels like, in a sense, when people were trying to take two steps forward, they ended up taking 16 steps back.”
It’s been almost two weeks since the shooting. Cityteam volunteers say the shelter has continued to operate at full capacity.
Jackson would prefer to stay elsewhere, but he says that on most days, he doesn’t really have a choice.
“You lose a lot of faith that there is anywhere safe for anybody that’s homeless,” he said.
It’s still unclear what events led Elifritz to his final confrontation with police. He’d had several interactions with officers on April 7, and they were pursuing him as the suspect in a carjacking. Police and prosecutors are investigating.
Meanwhile, Jackson keeps thinking about what he saw that night — a man, Elifritz, going through what Jackson believes to have been a mental health crisis.
He’s been there: Jackson said he’s struggled with drug and alcohol addiction since he was kid. He’s now four months clean and sober. Elifritz had been in and out of recovery, too.
Jackson said what happened on April 7 is a reminder: John Elifritz could have easily been him.