The December 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

The Poor Will Perish Without Housing

We Accuse the US Government

The Works of Mercy: Thoughts on the Death of a Homeless Man

Greed Fuels Oakland Condo Conversion Law

Berkeley Food and Housing Project

Happy Holidays: Berkeley Targets the Homeless

Claire Burch Documents Life on the Streets

St. Joseph the Worker Needs Support

94 Years Old and Still Homeless

Judge Orders Fresno to Uphold U.S. Constitution

Stranded in the Season of Giving

Stories of Street Survival

A Criminal of Poverty

New Media Offensive for Iraq War

Poor Leonard's Almanack on Religion

AIDS & Poverty: A Deadly Link

Mysteries in Our Own Back Yard

December Poetry of the Streets


November 2006

October 2006

September 2006

July 2006

June 2006

May 2006

April 2006

March 2006

February 2006

January 2006

November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005

Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

Survival Stories from the Streets of Oakland

Story and interviews by Janny Castillo

The life stories of homeless seniors who have survived life on the hard streets of Oakland are a marvelous mixture of happiness, sorrow, joy, faith, tragedy, renewal and, above all, hope for the future.

St. Mary's Center held a large, colorful rally at Oakland City Hall to commemorate the International Day to Eradicate Poverty. The march and rally brought together homeless and low-income seniors and Oakland schoolchildren. Tom Lowe photo

From Vietnam to Dogtown

Kory Kacere

A Vietnam veteran ends up living under a freeway in an encampment called Dogtown by its homeless inhabitants. Then an angel entered his life.

In 1970, Kory Kacere was stationed in Danang during the Vietnam War as a lance corporal in the United States Marine Corp. Nine years later, he lost his job working as an airport security guard in San Francisco. Losing his job started a downward spiral which resulted in 25 years of homelessness.

Kory's security job had paid him $3.15 an hour and barely kept a roof over his head. After losing it, he had to move into his friend's garage and entered an environment that was ruled by drugs. It did not take long for Kory to start using.

His life continued to decline when he lost his wife because of his drug use; and the task of finding work became increasingly difficult, especially work that would earn enough to pay rent. For the next 20-plus years, Kory stayed in abandoned buildings living off General Assistance ($300 a month in cash, $200 in food stamps).

"Then in 1996 they kicked us all off welfare," he said. "They said it was time to get a job." As Kory explains, that's when his life really got rough.

For many years, St. Vincent De Paul's Dining Hall in Oakland was Kory's only source of food. Kory and hundreds of others ate in the dining hall that opened its doors only once a day. Kory would eat and then take a bag lunch that sustained him until the next day. "St. Vincent's is not what it used to be," he said. "They are not getting donations like they used to. They give us what they have, and that usually means no meat."

Kory took up residence in West Oakland under a freeway encampment called Dogtown by the inhabitants. He lived there so long that people on the street nicknamed him Mayor of Dogtown. One of the scariest moments occurred in broad daylight, when Kory was nearly attacked by ten youth armed with sticks and boards. He escaped by running for his life.

Then an angel came into his life. Her name was Suzanna. She had seen Kory on the streets for a long time. She approached him and asked if she could cut his hair. He said yes, and thus began a friendship that has endured to this day.

Suzanna offered to let Kory sleep in her back cottage and, if he wanted, she could help him fill out papers to get SSI. "She's a nice Christian lady," Kory said.

Nowadays, he receives $850 a month, of which more than half goes to paying rent for a two-bedroom cottage he found just down the street from Suzanna. Does he run out of food and money before the end of the month? Every time.

He is grateful for the services he receives at St. Mary's and St. Vincent De Paul. Kory's last words were, "You need to be nice to get along in the world, but sometimes you have to be tough just to get by."

Tragically Bad Medical Care

Joseph Clemons

"I have faith in the good Lord, but right now I don't even know where I am going to live and how I am going to deal with this health crisis."

One night last month at 4:30 a.m., Joseph Clemons woke up in severe pain. He felt like he was being eaten alive by bed bugs. After a year in an Oakland hotel room paying $565 a month, while living in deplorable conditions, he could not take it any more. He left the next day and is now homeless and staying in a shelter.

"I am not going to last there," Joseph says, speaking of the shelter. "I came back from the hospital, and I needed to eat because I had taken medication for a virus, but because I came in late, I was denied food."

Joseph is a diabetic and has bronchial asthma, but an incident about two years ago nearly killed him. "I was standing in line at Highland picking up my inhaler and I coughed so hard that my intestines came through my stomach," Joseph said. "I was rushed to surgery and a doctor put them back in and then sent me home."

That night Joseph was awakened by the police who were there to escort him back to the hospital. A terrible mistake had been made: his intestines were put in wrong and his appendix had died. Correcting the mistake turned into a long ordeal for Joseph.

Two years later he still has not had the operation to correct the problem. "They are scared to operate because I might die on the table," he said. It's a risk he is willing to take because living in his condition is extremely painful and, along with his other health challenges, which include diabetes and a heart condition, life for him is unbearable at times.

Joseph has attempted to get the surgery four times. He has shown up for his surgery appointment, and each time Highland turned him away. "They tell me they don't have my paperwork so they can't operate." Each time he has refrained from eating for hours which is dangerous for a diabetic.

He has little faith in his doctor who Joseph feels did not stand up for him when the surgeon made such a terrible mistake. "His first responsibility is to his patients and he should have made this right," he said.

A doctor at Alta Bates looked at Joseph's X-ray and was astounded at what he saw. He told Joseph that his condition was very bad and he needed to take the X-rays to Highland and tell them they must operate immediately. Joseph did just that, but Highland did not react as expected by urgently taking care of Joseph, but they did schedule him for another operation.

Through all this strife, Joseph keeps his head up. "I stay around Christian-based people to help keep me out of trouble," Joseph said. "I have faith in the good Lord, but right now I don't even know where I am going to live and how I am going to deal with this health crisis."

The Mayor of St. Mary's

Darlene Thomas

"I would have died had I had to live on the streets. St. Mary's found shelter for me and now I am just trying to give back."

Darlene Thomas lives in a small studio apartment with a two-burner stove and no oven. "We have roaches," she said, "and a two-foot refrigerator that can't hold much." More than half her income goes to rent. "I'd have to pay more for my own bathroom," she said, shaking her head.

Darlene runs out of fresh food before the second week of each month. She said, "I would like to buy more fruits and vegetables, but it doesn't fit in the fridge. On top of that, I run out of money pretty quick."

She eats lunch at St. Mary's and cooks at home in the evening. After the money runs out, Darlene usually gets an emergency food box from St. Mary's. "It's mostly canned goods, not fresh food, but it's something to eat until next month."

"What we need is REAL affordable housing," Darlene said. "It's way too expensive for seniors on fixed incomes. What I mean by affordable housing is something more like $200 a month instead of $400 or $500."

She suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure. Earlier this year she had to change medical plans. She used to get her medicine for free, but now she has to pay $15. "But there are seniors who are paying a lot more every month," she noted.

For health care, she goes to the East Oakland Wellness Center. "It's a long way to go, but I have my bus pass," she said. Eight months ago, after she ended up in the hospital with respiratory problems, she made a decision to quit smoking. She has not had a cigarette since.

Darlene is known as the mayor of St. Mary's because she is at the center when it opens and is often the last one to leave. "I would have died had I had to live on the streets. St. Mary's found shelter for me and now I am just trying to give back."

Darlene is real proud of her social justice work. Last year, she worked alongside the Alameda County Food Bank to help pass legislation to preserve breakfast for school-age children and to get corner stores to sell fresh vegetables.

Her Only Home Was a Car

Allene Smith

Allene and her son moved to the Bay Area from Kansas, believing a friend had a place for them to stay. It never materialized. Allene was forced to live in her car for more than a year.

Allene Smith feels loneliest when she is not feeling well and can't leave the house. "I've been homeless, but right now I feel next to homeless," Allene said. She sublets a room for $500 in someone's house. Allene receives $860 a month from disability.

"I don't feel like I have my own place," she said. "I would love to have a place where I could have bible study and have my close friends from church come and visit me. Right now I don't feel comfortable having my son over."

Allene and her son moved to the Bay Area from Kansas under the assumption that a friend had a place for them to stay. It never materialized. Allene was forced to live in her car for more than a year.

"I tried to get housing and Section 8 but it never worked out," she said. It was an embarrassing situation for her. Her son found a job working at a restaurant and he often helped his mother by bringing her food.

Allene suffers from diabetes and chronic pain due to a nerve disease. She goes to the West Oakland Health Clinic for her medical needs. The new medical plan has caused her medication to increase from free to $73. She praises Health Net, a group that delivers much-needed diabetic supplies for free.

After a three month stay in the hospital, she was released with a prescription that was crucial to her recovery. She had no money, so she went without the medicine and her insulin for three weeks. She became very ill and, after many phone calls, her doctor was able to help Allene get her medicine at a reduced cost.

In 2002, Allene was featured in a San Francisco Chronicle article entitled "New Faces of Homelessness."

The Kindness of Strangers

Vincent Chelucci

Vincent remembers the kindness of strangers who would feed him when he was reduced to begging for food.

Vincent Chelucci, now 56, was homeless from 1968 until 1971. It was hard living in People's Park in Berkeley. He remembers the kindness of strangers who would feed him when he was reduced to begging for food. One day, a stranger told him he could find help at an organization called the Hillel Street Project, which is now known as BOSS (Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency).

BOSS helped Vincent apply and get on SSI. His first permanent housing was a room at the Pasand Hotel. He now lives in a similar situation in Oakland. He has a microware, stove and a refrigerator; but, because more than half his money goes to rent, he runs out before the third week of the month. When he gets sick, he goes to Summit and Alta Bates hospital.

Vincent volunteers at St. Mary's and is taking classes on leadership. "I want to learn to talk to people who have gone through what I have gone through. I want to help make life better for them." He believes that what the city of Oakland really needs is true affordable housing.
He makes ends meet by eating lunch and dinner at St. Mary's. "Living in SRO's is better than living on the streets," he said.

A Little Help from His Friends

Leon Harris

"I depend on St. Mary's and St. Vincent's to get me through."

Leon Harris considers himself self-sufficient. "I am 70 years old and was born in Monroe, Louisiana," he said. Leon receives $800 a month from SSI and pays half of that for a small room in West Oakland. He does not have kitchen facilities, so a large portion of the rest of his money goes to eating outside of the home.

"Almost every day I go to McDonald's for breakfast," Leon said. He has lunch and dinner at St. Mary's Center. On the weekends when St. Mary's is closed, he usually spends $10 a meal to feed himself.

"I depend on St. Mary's and St. Vincent's to get me through," he said.

Another chunk of his income is spent washing clothes at the laundromat. For his health needs, Leon goes to the Over 60 Clinic where he says he gets good service.

The Long Loneliness

Erskine Murphy

Erskine was homeless for three years, sleeping where he could on the streets of Oakland. "It's terrible. I just felt alone in the world with no one to turn to."

In 2003, Erskine Murphy had to vacate a subsidized housing unit, and not knowing that he could request a transfer from the Oakland Housing Authority, he left the unit and lost his subsidy. Erskine was homeless for three years, sleeping where he could on the streets of Oakland. "It's terrible," he said. "I just felt alone in the world with no one to turn to."

He freelanced as a house painter but the work was not reliable. Erskine was exposed to the elements as well as the violence of the streets. One mugging sent him to Highland Hospital for brain surgery.

"Highland saved my life," he said. "That's a fantastic hospital." He still goes to Highland to help him with his seizures. He also goes to a medical clinic in East Oakland that helps with his health needs.

Due to his long bout with alcoholism, his appetite fluctuates drastically and it is hard for him to eat regularly. When Erskine's money runs out, he takes advantage of the free places to eat in the area. He filed the application for SSI himself, and now receives $820 a month from SSI and, with housing assistance from St. Mary's Center, he pays $400 a month to rent an Oakland SRO hotel room.

Raising a Baby in Poverty

Jania Gaines Cox

Jania is a happy baby. She does not notice how hard her mother works to take care of her. If we would demand that affordable housing is built, her chances for survival increase significantly.

In November 2006, Jania turned three years old. She lives in a two-bedroom apartment in a crime-ridden neighborhood in West Oakland. Her mother has two low-paying jobs and works six to seven days a week. Jania and her mom Naomi live in poverty.

Naomi has applied for AFDC and food stamps and was denied. Since Jania was born, Naomi has submitted numerous applications for subsidized housing, with no results. Naomi wants to go back to school; but having to take care of a baby and keep a roof over their heads, finding time for school is difficult.

Jania is a happy baby. She does not notice how hard her mother works to take care of her basic needs. She also does not know that when her mother was six years old, she was homeless. Naomi's parents fell on really hard times, and for four years, Naomi, her parents and her three younger brothers lived in motels and shelters.

The situation facing Naomi and Jania is not unique. Many families live on the edge, where the loss of wages or an unexpected health crisis can drop a family into homelessness. With hard work and grace, Naomi and Jania might make it.

If our community would stand together and demand that true affordable housing becomes a reality, their chances for survival increase significantly.

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