The July 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Corruption at Oakland Housing Authority

Shot Through the Heart in S.F.

Legal Challenge to Cruel Attacks on SF Homeless

GRIP's Shelter in Richmond

HUD Plans to Demolish Public Housing in New Orleans

Fresno Homeless Attacked

Stonewalling by Bush's ICH on Homeless Issues

Are We Not Our Brother's Keeper

Congress Refuses to Raise the Minimum Wage

Beyond Prisons: Challenge to the Prison System

Penal Servitude

The U.S. Racial Wealth Gap

Poor Working Conditions for Immigrants

AFSC Sues Defense Dept. for Surveillance

Surveillance and Orwell's 1984

Enron's Good Fight

Poor Leonard's Almanack: On Self-Realization

July Poetry of the Streets

Child Slavery on African Cocoa Farms

The Worth of Education in the Phillipines


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.

'Are We Not Our Brother's Keeper?'

by Janny Castillo, BOSS

A homeless woman in Berkeley reads on a bench. Lydia Gans photo

"Homelessness is a breakdown in our society -- a spiritual, physical, emotional breakdown," the homeless woman says when asked how people become homeless.

The BOSS Multi-Agency Service Center (MASC) is located in the heart of downtown Berkeley. Every day the center serves 60 to 100 individuals living on the streets, in the city's shelters or in low-income SRO hotels. Along with other services, the center holds regularly scheduled groups, such as Better Choices, a group which meets every Wednesday morning.

Sitting around the table are two facilitators and six people whose experience with homelessness differs significantly, which becomes evident as they share their stories. The question put before them often is answered inadequately by national homeless agencies, local service providers and all levels of government. Few go to the source -- to those who experience homelessness on a daily basis -- and ask: "How do people become homeless?"

Julia's story

Julia Reese is a small woman, soft-spoken with a kind smile, yet she speaks with seriousness and a deep knowing. "In the Street Spirit paper," she says, "they blame Reagan and Bush, but they had nothing to do with my becoming homeless. In 1995, Del Monte went out of business; another corporation bought it. Some were able to go to other places to work, some were not. I was not." Julia has a strong spiritual background that she says keeps her safe and sane today.

She shakes her head when she talks about the lack of affordable housing. "Rents are too high," Julia says. "Affordable housing should mean $300 or $200 a month, not $600 and up. People on SSI do not want to spend all their money on rent; this is why they are out on the streets. And who can afford a deposit?"

The average income for a person on SSI is between $600 and $800. The average rent for an SRO (single room occupancy) hotel in Berkeley is between $500 and $600.

Delores' story

Delores Cumby sells Street Spirit to make ends meet. She has witnessed the injustice and the prejudice, as well as the generosity of people who stop to buy papers. Her experience has given her an edge and an unmistakable toughness. Her passion to help and be a part of the solution reflects in her words.

"Homelessness is a breakdown in our society -- a spiritual, physical, emotional breakdown," Delores says. "Until we realize as a society that the system is corrupt and it creates poverty, it will only get worse." She says we need to embrace our morality and respond to the situation as the Bible says. "Am I not my brother's keeper?" she asked.

"It's a 24-hour job being homeless and a constant wearing down of spirit." Delores is writing a book on her life experiences. She says that some homeless people are unnecessarily harassed by the police and that the places available for poor people to live in are drug- and roach-infested.

"Society dictates three things," Delores says. "You cannot have a problem. If you have a problem, get it fixed. If you can't get it fixed, then hide it. Well, they can't hide homelessness."

How many homeless people are there? The number remains elusive. The National Coalition for the Homeless answers the question by stating there is no definitive answer. "In most cases, homelessness is a temporary circumstance -- not a permanent condition. A more appropriate measure of the magnitude of homelessness is the number of people who experience homelessness over time, not the number of 'homeless people.'"

The best approximation is from a study done by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty which states that approximately 3.5 million people, 1.35 million of them children, are likely to experience homelessness in a given year.

Whatever the numbers indicate, Delores is right: you cannot hide homelessness. She told us that her experience has at times stripped her of her integrity. "I have been degraded and exposed to people with attitudes and comments that hurt. 'You're no good,' they would say to me, and 'Why don't you get a job.' I say to them, 'Don't speak to me that way -- not until you have walked in my shoes.'"

She goes on, "I am not begging. I have a product (Street Spirit). Someone with compassion and empathy would be glad to read it." Delores told us that people who stop and talk with her means so much more to her than the gift of a dollar.

Tony's story

"I always try to make people feel uplifted," says Tony McNair, who has been living on the streets off and on for 10 years. Over the last two years, he has slowly been going blind. His humor is alive and well as he tells his favorite joke about going to an AA meeting and sharing that he's sober, but not clean, indicating his need for a shower. His favorite saying: "We are homeless but not helpless."

The topic turned to how the foster care system turns individuals out at the age of 18, often with nowhere to go and unprepared for work. Tony was a child in the foster care system. "I was the youngest of six; my mother had a bad alcohol problem. Somebody called CPS and they took my brother, my sister and me away."

Tony says it was a religious foster home and it felt like he was in church 24 hours a day. To this day, he will call his foster mom and she would ask him, "Anthony, when are you going to church?" He said, "You learn some hard lessons in a foster home, ones that you can't learn in a biological family."

When asked if the quality of education played a role in creating homelessness, laughs broke out around the table. "Nowadays it doesn't make a difference," Julia says. "We got Master's and PhD's on the streets." The consensus was that lack of livable wage jobs, lack of affordable housing, mental illness and drug and alcohol addictions are the major reasons.

Enrique's story

Victor shared his story of the day that alcohol got the best of him. "I used to work installing glass, and after being sober for one year and two months, I started drinking again and got very drunk. I was driving a car that wasn't even mine and, at 85 miles an hour, I crashed into a liquor store on University Avenue."

Victor was in a coma for eight weeks and he now has a plate in his head and is epileptic. "I think I am lucky," he says. "I am legally blind but I am no longer homeless because of Shelter Plus Care and I am living in a very good place." Shelter Plus Care is a housing subsidy program that assists homeless individuals with mental illness, disability and/or substance abuse problems obtain affordable housing.

Earnest's story

Earnest is sincere, friendly and very open to telling it like it is. He agrees that lack of affordable housing creates homelessness. "When the cost of living is higher than your paycheck, you have to have everybody in the household working to make ends meet, including the cat and the dog." Earnest used to work for the meat companies. Now he is staying in a shelter and working odd jobs. He used to stay at the Oakland Army Base winter shelter.

"There are a lot of empty houses at the Oakland Army Base that could be used for housing," Earnest notes. A good example is the Alameda Naval Air Station, home to Alameda Point Collaborative; 239 low-income housing units located on 34 acres; nearly 500 individuals live there, including more than 250 children.

The search for affordable housing requires endless hours of Internet searches and phone calls. There are hundreds of subsidized housing complexes that are not connected to the Housing Authority. Finding out when and where to apply can turn into a frustrating experience for service providers as well as individuals.

"What we need is a way for people who have housing to talk to the people who need it," Earnest says. One suggestion is an Internet website where developers, landlords, subsidized apartment complexes and housing authorities can submit openings.

"It's not only the high rents that are a barrier," Tony says. "But when you have to pay first and last for a deposit and pay for a credit check, it's impossible for us to get into affordable housing."

Earnest told us that mental illness is another serious factor in homelessness. "I see a lot of mentally ill people on the streets that really need help." Earnest expressed his appreciation for the service providers. "I've been gone for a while, but I know that I always have this place to come back to. It helps people take care of the basic necessities of life."

When asked what would happen if there were no service providers, Delores responded, "There would be anarchy and a lot more violence. Hungry people will find ways to get food. It will be total chaos."

Julia's last words raised more questions than answers. She simply said, "Homelessness is the second slavery."

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