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'Makes me shake and cry': Residents of SE Portland affordable housing complex say elderly neighbor died because of heat

Residents said they wish more was done to save their neighbor's life. The elderly man, who had disabilities, died during the June heat wave.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The death toll from the historic heat wave in the Pacific Northwest last month continues to grow. 

On Wednesday, the state medical examiner said it climbed to 116 Oregonians. Out of those who died, 72 people lived in Multnomah County. Most of them had underlying health issues and died in their homes with no fans or air conditioning. 

An elderly man with disabilities died at Peaceful Villa, an affordable housing complex in Southeast Portland. He was on oxygen. 

Multnomah County hasn't confirmed the man's cause of death, which is why KGW is not identifying him. Officials said death investigations could take months since so many people died in the heat.

KGW spoke with the man's neighbors, who said they believe he died because of the extreme heat. They said they wish more was done to save his life. 

"That's how most of us get by here today is by helping each other," said resident Jim Cameli.

"Most of us are here because of disabilities and medical issues," resident Linda Akin said. "He tried to maintain his independence. We all do."

People who live at Peaceful Villa said they mostly knew the man in passing. 

"Seemed like a really nice person," Cameli said. "I feel bad that he's gone, wish I would have got to know him better."

From the courtyard in the back of the complex, Akin and others watched as his body was carried away early last week.

"It was awful," Akin said. "What a degrading, horrible way to go."

Neighbors said they learned after he died that he didn't have an air conditioning unit in his apartment.

RELATED: Oregon heat wave death toll grows to 116

Home Forward, which is a housing authority, runs the affordable housing complex on Southeast 47th Avenue and Southeast Clinton Street. While some have window units, there is no central air conditioning. Many who live there could not make it to county-run cooling centers because of health issues.

"It's just sad he didn't have the means to get the things he needed or get help. Somebody might have helped him," Cameli said. "It's a shame, you know."

Many Oregonians most vulnerable to the heat were in multi-unit buildings with no air conditioning in affordable housing complexes or in senior living facilities. Those isolated were especially hard to reach.

County officials said they reached out to dozens of apartment management companies that house elderly and low-income residents. They shared information and asked managers to open air-conditioned spaces.

In a statement on July 2, Home Forward told KGW it planned for the heat and was involved with residents to provide cool spaces and resources.

But Akin and others argue that is not true.

"No texts, no calls, no printed material, no visits, no helpful hints, no encouraging words," Akin said. "If management or someone from here had been checking like they should have there would have been an awareness. It just makes me shake and cry. We've got to make sure that this is an issue that comes to the forefront and is dealt with in an appropriate manner."

Wednesday afternoon, the executive director of Home Forward, Michael Buonocore, spoke with media outlets, including KGW. He confirmed a man died in a Peaceful Villa ground floor unit during the hottest days of the heat wave. They suspect it was due to the heat. 

He also confirmed what neighbors said: Home Forward did not do any specific outreach to Peaceful Villa residents before or during the heat wave. Buonocore says the man was connected to other resources.

They focused outreach on tall high-rise buildings without AC where people are most susceptible.

Buonocore says they're thinking about what they can do better next time. 

KGW wants to hear from people who know someone who passed away or was hospitalized because of the heat. We want to understand what happened and be sure this doesn't happen again.

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