The January 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee

 
 

National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website

 

 

In this issue:

Religious Witness with Homeless People

Memorial for Homeless Deaths in East Bay

Remember Rosa Parks: Justice in Public Transit

Justice is Pushed to Back of Bus

Big Brother Watches the Poor

Homeless Woman Works to Survive

Let Justice Roll: Raise the Miserly Minimum Wage

Richmond Courts Unfair to Poor

War Profiteer Parties Hearty

Poets Against the War Machine

Poems for the Poorman

Poems in Spirit of St. Francis

Songs of Our Shared Humanity

Psychotic Breaks

How to Deal with Pain and Fear


ARCHIVE

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 Nameless and Faceless Deaths in Our Midst

by Janny Castillo

A vigil was held at St. Mary's Center in Oakland on December 21, 2005, to honor homeless people who died on the streets of the East Bay. Lydia Gans photo

"We know we have lost brothers and sisters like us. They had names. But they died nameless. John Doe -- what kind of name is that for a man?" -- Rev. Ken Hamilton

The preparation committee for the St. Mary's Homeless Vigil went in search of a non-existent count of homeless deaths in the East Bay. The question was how many homeless people died on the streets in Alameda County last year. Vigil organizers called the coroner's office, city offices, community activists, and homeless service providers. No one knew the answer, because no one in charge was counting these nameless deaths in our midst.

On December 21, 2005, a group of about 50 people stood in a circle in St. Mary's courtyard in Oakland. The sky was cloudy and dark and people stood shivering in the cold. Rev. Ken Hamilton spoke about the dead whose names were not known. "We know we have lost brothers and sisters like us," he said. "They had names. But they died nameless. John Doe -- what kind of name is that for a man?"

How many did we lose this year? How many homeless people did we lose to cold, to hunger, to violence, to sickness? The answer is lost in the cold winds of winter. Hundreds or thousands in California, tens of thousands in the nation. Homeless people seem as difficult to count after death as they are when alive. The real question is: How many have to die before real help is available to our poorest and most vulnerable? The answer should be, if it has to happen at all, let it be only ONE.

Vigil attendees were given torn fabric to remember the dead. Rev. Hamilton said, "All the things that made that person can now be taken up, scrap by scrap, and sewn, re-sewn into something new. To re-sew is to remember. We remember that many have been torn from us, but are now sewn back together in our community for we choose to remember them.... We choose to remember them."

Representatives from the Youth Emergency Assistance Hostel (YEAH!) spoke, "Two of our young people have died. One who had been on the streets since the age of 12 was recently sent home to New Jersey. He overdosed on heroin in his home. His parents were glad that he was home; but we're not happy, we lost that one. We are working so homeless youth don't have to become homeless adults."

Janny Castillo, BOSS community organizer, read a statement from Terry Messman, Street Spirit editor. "Shortly before Christmas last year, a poor tenant named Mary Jesus found that she had no home in this world anymore. Her landlord had raised the rent and then evicted her from the Oakland apartment she had lived in for 13 years. Being evicted felt like the end of her life to Mary Jesus. As a disabled woman living on General Assistance, she saw nothing ahead but a destitute life on the dead-end streets. So she took her own life on December 10, 2004. Mary Jesus died in despair because she owed her landlords only about $1,000. Is a human life not worth far more than $1,000?"

Michael Diehl, a community activist well-known among the homeless community, could not say how many died on the streets last year. He wrote: "I have tried unsuccessfully to find the name of the man who died, Sunday afternoon, November 11th (in Berkeley). He was in his sleeping bag when the ambulance arrived. The attendee told me he was barely alive but dying from cancer. They had to leave his wheelchair, which Elizabeth took care of. Prentice, the tall black man who died at the Harrison House emergency shelter, seems to not have died from a drug overdose but had been complaining of feeling ill at least a week before his death. Two youths from the YEAH! youth shelter died, one in New Jersey from a drug overdose and one on December 3rd at 4:00 p.m. on the streets of Berkeley."

On the memorial page at the www.createpeaceathome.org website, the names and stories of homeless people who have died in our community are posted to remember them:
Anthony Lucero, caught fire and died under an exit ramp; Dalrus Joseph Brown was murdered in West Oakland; Maria Katherine King, a homeless woman in Berkeley, was brutally beaten into a coma, and died two weeks later; Frank Shorman, a community activist, and Richard Moore, a homeless and physically disabled Vietnam vet, died after long bouts of homelessness.

How do we remember and honor the many John and Jane Does, whose names and life stories now lie buried in unmarked graves? How do we remember them?

A deeper tragedy is the conditions in which these people lived. Many lived in deplorable situations in extreme poverty for decades. They endured harsh weather, long-term illness, severe mental illness and hunger. What about those who are alive and suffering today, the thousands in our community who are living in these conditions now?

It is unacceptable that even one person spent his last breath without shelter and died alone. The outrage and determination to rid this country of homelessness should be loud and clear. Instead, the cry for affordable housing, livable wages and affordable health care is barely a whisper.

Carol Johnson, executive director of St. Mary's Center in Oakland, opened the memorial vigil by declaring: "In the year 2000, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution declaring a state of emergency in housing for extremely low-income people. Seniors and other people on SSI are too poor to qualify for what we call affordable housing.

"Since then, we have tried in earnest to simply count the number of homeless deaths in this county, to attach names and faces with this crisis. Our official efforts have been thwarted by a system reluctant to acknowledge poverty in this community, this state and this nation. Homeless people who die in this county remain uncounted, unnamed victims of neglect.

"Homelessness and hunger persist and increase only because the crisis is ignored. People are dying because they are being ignored. Ensuring that there is housing for everyone and freedom from hunger is not beyond imagination or ability. The crisis of homelessness and hunger first must be a crisis recognized not as a tourist deterrent, or a nuisance, or a sad situation, but as a moral challenge for our whole community. We need to understand, as Kofi Annan said, 'The cost of poverty is borne by all of us -- north and south, rich and poor, men and women of all races and religions. Today's real borders are not between nations, but between powerful and powerless, free and fettered, privileged and humiliated.'

"The intention of today's memorial service is to make visible the war on the poor, to put names and faces on people who have died homeless, to break through our numbness and despair, to reclaim our profound awareness of the sanctity and dignity of every human life, to declare housing as a human right, and to transform our rage and grief into action that produces housing for the lowest income people."

Contact: St. Mary's Center (510) 893-0119; Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS) (510) 649-1930; Youth Emergency Assistance Hostel (510) 848-1424.


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