Hazel Dai died in Eugene on Jan. 8, at 49 years old. She is believed to be the first person in Lane County to die while homeless in 2021. Little information is publicly known about her death, and it was difficult to reach surviving family members. Her life, though, is remembered in kind words from a good friend over the past year, Eugene resident Leona Roberts, and Dai’s aunt, Kimberly Giandalia.
“She was a sweet soul,” Roberts says of Dai. “There was no angry bone about her.” Giandalia also describes Dai as sweet and kind, with a giving soul.
From what Eugene Weekly has been able to piece together, Dai — whose name is pronounced “day” — grew up in California with her sister, Gloria Hartvigson. Most of her family still lives in California. She is survived by a daughter, Trisha Dai, her mother, Hazel Dai Sr. and other extended family. She was married once and later divorced. As far as Roberts knew, Dai had good memories of her childhood. Dai came to Eugene in the 1990s.
She was known for cultivating her own unique fashion sense, often taking a T-shirt and cutting it up to make her clothes suit her style. Dai also enjoyed wearing wigs, and bought them in different colors, including platinum blonde.
“She thought she was Marilyn Monroe that day,” Roberts says of Dai’s blonde wig. Roberts would sometimes pick up Dai, and they’d go driving while listening to Led Zeppelin.
In 2015 she was brought to court by her landlord in an eviction. Three years later, the same landlord was convicted of welfare fraud and sentenced to five years’ probation for concealing income from his tenants, many of whom received disability checks.
Dai lived off and on the streets in Eugene and Springfield for a while, struggling with drug use and mental illness. Giandalia says the family would lose contact with Dai for many years at a time because of her mental illness.
Dai befriended Roberts’ father, Gary Bowen, around May 2020 and they would meet at Jasper’s Tavern in Springfield. In mid 2020, Dai became a caretaker for Roberts’ father, moving in with him for a while. But when he needed to be moved to a long-term care facility, Dai didn’t have another place to go and was on the streets again.
In the last year of her life, Dai became a part of Hope Community Church in Springfield. Friends from her church describe her as a survivor who endured loss and hurt, and say they hadn’t seen her in the month before her death.
A memorial for Dai was held on Jan. 31 at the church, where balloons were released in remembrance, as the small crowd shouted, “We love you Hazel!”
Church members planted a Japanese maple tree on church property in honor of Dai. A friend wrote that Dai was gone, but never forgotten.
Giandalia says Dai was loved by her family and many cousins.
“The common factor we all agreed to in our family when hearing about her death was we hope and pray her next journey will be kinder to her than this one was,” Giandalia says.
Dai is reported to have died of heart failure after a series of hospitalizations.
Eugene Weekly seeks to publish an obituary for every person who dies homeless in Lane County during 2021. This is the third obituary we have completed; we are working on a story about Davie Scot Hanes, who died around Feb. 1. No single agency tracks homeless deaths here; if you know of someone who has passed on while homeless, please let us know by emailing Editor@EugeneWeekly.com.
Emily Topping contributed reporting to this story.