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.

The Works of Mercy as Rebellion Against Injustice

"Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system."
-- Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker

by Terry Messman

This memorial marks the final resting place of Gilbert Estrada, a homeless man who died while sleeping behind a dumpster in Berkeley.

St. Teresa of Avila hauntingly described life as a night spent in an uncomfortable inn. Yet, for Gilbert Estrada, life was an endless, dark night spent sleeping in the cold outside that inn. For there was no shelter for Estrada, a homeless resident of Berkeley who died while sleeping on cardboard behind a dumpster on October 23, 2006.

In this season when we remember the birth of a homeless child who found no room in the inn, it is important to realize how little things have changed for the poor in the last 2000 years. For there was no room in the inn for Gilbert Estrada.

Instead, his life was ended prematurely by the sickness and suffering caused by homelessness, as he coughed fitfully through his final night. Estrada passed away in the middle of the night while sleeping outside of Canterbury House, a residential program of the Episcopal Church for University of California students involved in community service.

Several students at Canterbury House knew Estrada, and two of them had been awakened by his coughing and tried to comfort him in his last hours, not realizing he was dying. Canterbury House students then worked with Rev. Gary Brower, an Episcopal priest, and J.C. Orton of the Catholic Worker to hold a memorial service for Estrada at St. Mary Magdalen Church on Sunday, November 5.

The memorial was heartrending and thought-provoking, for many of the students were shaken by the tragedy in their midst, and were moved to ask themselves probing, honest, agonizing questions about how they might have reached out to help Estrada in his hour of need.

Even as the students struggled with these issues, I was heartened by how much they had cared, and inspired by their attempts to be merciful to Estrada, both on his final night, and in their longstanding and friendly tolerance for this homeless man who was allowed to live in peace right next to Canterbury House for long periods of time.

During the memorial service, J.C. Orton presented us with a troubling reflection. Orton was determined that Estrada's life and tragic death must not be forgotten in Berkeley. Yet, he also predicted that Estrada would indeed be forgotten in a short time, despite all our efforts, like so many homeless brothers and sisters who had fallen before him.

That is the fate of too many homeless people in life, and even more in death -- to fall into the oblivion of poverty, and to be erased entirely from the face of the earth. Nameless and faceless in life, most are not even noticed or mourned in death.

That is why, during this Christmas season, we must take a moment to think about Gilbert Estrada, some mother's son who died in a city where there was no room at the inn.

We have all been sick at some point, so we can all imagine ourselves suffering an illness during a long, cold night. Now picture yourself sick and aching while lying all alone behind a dumpster -- and then imagine what it would feel like to gradually realize that you are sicker than you thought, and that you are not going to live to see the morning.

Now multiply by several thousand times the sickness, suffering and death of Gilbert Estrada. That is the only way to comprehend the anguish and loneliness experienced by thousands of homeless people who have died in the Bay Area.

Priests, nuns, rabbis and ministers who work with Religious Witness with Homeless People once erected a memorial wall with the names and ages of homeless people who died in San Francisco. At last count, more than 2,000 names of homeless people were inscribed on a wall as long as several billboards. That wall only held the names of those who died on the streets of San Francisco. A similar number have died in the East Bay.

That memorial wall -- and Gilbert Estrada's memorial service -- are an indictment of our heartless economic system. In a very real sense, every soul whose name is listed on those memorial walls died of neglect and abandonment by our society. What would be a truly human response to such a heartbreaking loss of life?

The only fitting memorial for Estrada and the legions of homeless people who die on the streets every year would be for the City of Berkeley to create the Gilbert Estrada Respite Care Center, both to honor his name and memory, and to prevent further needless deaths. Berkeley should build the Gilbert Estrada Respite Care Center as a sanctuary for homeless people who need medical care when they grow ill on the streets, or need ongoing care after surgery or hospitalization.

For several years, Street Spirit has published articles documenting how local hospitals routinely dump seriously ill homeless people on the streets even though they need follow-up medical care. Four years ago, a Berkeley housing official called me to promise that city officials had convened a group to study respite care models and would soon act to create a facility for seriously ill homeless people. The officials who failed to fulfill that promise know that the need is greater than ever. It is time for them to rectify this latest tragedy, and create a respite care center in Gilbert Estrada's name.

As we reflect on Estrada's years of exile, homelessness and early death, we begin to see what may happen to a child of God in a heartless society. The image of God is defaced when a human being made in God's image is left to die.

What does it mean that Gilbert Estrada died behind a dumpster? It means he was abandoned and then crucified by poverty. It means that, just as Jesus said, what you do to the least of his brothers and sisters, you do unto him. It means we let Christ die of homelessness behind a dumpster in Berkeley. It means no less than that.

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." On the evening of his death, Estrada's friends visited him, not knowing he was dying, but offering the saving grace of friendship and mercy. We can be thankful he received this compassion in his final hours. It teaches us that the simplest act of mercy we do for another may have overwhelming significance. As we give mercy, so shall we receive it.

Yet by ourselves, we can never heal the suffering of all the people who die prematurely due to the hardships and disease caused by extreme poverty. Our best efforts to help are sometimes not enough, because there are far too many victims of our heartless economic system.

Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker, performed what she called "the works of mercy" with all her strength and dedication: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, caring for the sick, comforting the sad and lonely, praying for the living and the dead.

Yet, she also saw clearly that the number of poor and homeless victims was always increasing because the U.S. government chose to spend its billions on war and bombs, and the economic system is set up so the wealthy elite can grow richer by exploiting the poor and the workers.

In Day's vision, performing the works of mercy demonstrated a concrete alternative to a society built on war and organized greed. She also was a lifelong protester, a resister of war, nuclear weapons, poverty and injustice who was arrested for civil disobedience many times.

That is why, along with her loving words about offering mercy to the homeless poor, she delivered a blistering indictment of our entire system. Dorothy Day said: "Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system."

I constantly remind myself of those incendiary words. It is crucial that we work to redeem this filthy, rotten system, even as we comfort its victims. True compassion leads both to acts of kindness to individuals, and to acts of resistance and rebellion in confronting a system that manufactures poverty as surely as it manufactures nuclear warheads.

An unjust economic system keeps on producing multitudes of the hungry, homeless and jobless. Every year, more victims of poverty are created than individual acts of charity could ever help. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring."

We need to make this society a safe place for the next baby to be born, the next precious human being made in God's image, the next Gilbert Estrada. For he or she will be born any moment, and we need to build a better life for this child of God than Estrada found here on earth.

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