The April 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee

 
 

National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website

 

 

In this issue:

US Government Created Housing Shortages

Hate Crimes in S.F. and Boston

Urban Removal in S.F. Bayview

Stop Bulldozers of Gentrification

The Death of Two Eloquent Homeless Voices

Grandmother Is Left Homeless by Car Wreck

Building Strong Unions on U.S./ Mexico Border

Transit Justice Is Derailed

Poor People Use the Internet to Organize

Just Wage for All

Ruling Class Runs Economy into the Ground

Art & Altruism: The Paintings of Elizabeth King

Poor Leonard's Almanack: On Writers

April Poetry of the Streets


ARCHIVES

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.

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

The Bay Area Loses Two Eloquent Homeless Voices

by Terry Messman

"In their hearts they turned to each others hearts for refuge. In the troubled years that came before the deluge." Art by Joy DeStefano

The Bay Area lost two eloquent advocates for homeless people in March. Kevin McFarren, a Berkeley writer and homeless advocate, and Dee, one-half of the mother/daughter duo that created Poor News Network, both died. Dee and Kevin had experienced the hardships of being homeless and both wrote passionately about the lives of poor people.

Kevin McFarren was a brilliant man who graduated from Harvard and then attended law school at UC Boalt. He wrote many articles for Street Spirit, often focusing on the issues of legal advocacy for homeless people. He profiled the East Bay Community Law Center and was a great admirer of lawyers who devoted their talents to helping street people.

Kevin also created his own genre of homeless fiction, writing a series of short stories for Street Spirit under the overall title of "The Berkeley Mystery." All the Berkeley Mysteries depicted the real-life hazards and dangers faced by people living on the streets of the East Bay; and often were thinly fictionalized versions of real-life events in the homeless community.

The Berkeley Mysteries shared a similar pattern: a formerly homeless sleuth tracks down a criminal or oppressor who is harming homeless people, solves the case, and makes the culprits pay dearly for their crimes. The beauty of the stories is the way Kevin utilized his power as author to decree happy endings for the poor and just retribution for their oppressors, thereby giving the poor the measure of justice they are too often denied in real life.

One of Kevin's heroes in the Berkeley Mysteries was "Peppermint" -- a play on the name "Cinnamon" (a.k.a. Toni Cook), his dearly cherished friend in real life. Cinnamon, a well-known homeless advocate in Berkeley, was perhaps his closest friend; Kevin thought the world of her and often helped edit her articles and poems for Street Spirit. Bound together in mutual admiration and reciprocal help, Kevin looked out for Cinnamon's well-being; and she, in turn, was the one who always visited him in the hospital as his health worsened.

Kevin's other main hero in life, as well as in fiction, was Osha Neumann, a Berkeley civil rights attorney. Many of the Berkeley Mysteries are solved by the crusading attorney "Ira Oldman," a thinly disguised fictional alter-ego of Osha Neumann. Just as Ira brought justice to the poor in the Berkeley Mysteries, so did Kevin admire Osha for winning legal victories for homeless people in real life.

Kevin McFarren died of liver failure brought on by years of alcohol abuse, which may have stemmed in part from a traumatic childhood. Osha Neumann said: "As alcoholism took over and he was unable to overcome it, Kevin slipped out of the path that his brilliance had laid out for him." He did not complete law school and was unable to join the ranks of the lawyers for the poor he so admired.

But he found real meaning in his life as a homeless advocate and writer.

Neumann said, "He found on the street the family and love that sustained him in his life. Particularly, he adored Cinnamon, and Gypsy when he was alive. They were his family. He found his family on the street. He struggled for the sense of self-worth -- and found it in supportive homeless people and his writing for Street Spirit. The stories he wrote for Street Spirit were, I think, wonderful, and it meant an awful lot to him that they were published."

Family vaues of Dee and Tiny

Dee and Tiny were a mother-daughter duo who created Poor Magazine, Poor News Network and a KPFA radio show on homelessness. Together, these two women created some remarkable examples of hard-hitting advocacy journalism on poverty and homeless issues.

Dee died in San Francisco of a pre-existing heart condition on March 10, leaving Tiny to carry on her mother's lifework as a homeless journalist and activist.

Sometimes it was hard to know which was truly the mother and which was the daughter. The two women were the closest of friends, collaborators who constantly inspired one another. But I often thought Tiny, the daughter, ended up being the mother to her own mother, taking on the role of the nurturing, responsible one who kept their lives together.

After Dee's death, Tiny wrote of her mother's lifelong struggles and suffering: "Mama Dee has been suffering for the last four years from a heart condition that she believed stemmed from her days as a child who was starved and severely beaten in a series of brutal foster homes. She has been suffering for as long as I can remember with psychological disabilities and fear from those years."

Many friends and onlookers thought that Dee had a mental disability and often questioned why Tiny turned her own life inside out to help her mother. They questioned the "health" of this seemingly over-dependent relationship.

But I knew Dee, and I liked and respected her. I saw her as very insightful when it came to political issues; and I especially admired her heartfelt solidarity with poor people. No doubt, she did need an unusual level of help from her daughter Tiny just to maintain; but Dee contributed a great deal to the homeless movement herself.

The mother-daughter team was extraordinarily prolific in creating several beautiful issues of Poor Magazine in the 1990s, and then helping to invent poor people's journalism with their website, the Poor News Network. Most significantly, Dee and Tiny showed a rare degree of dedication in attending nearly every homeless protest in the Bay Area for the past decade and reporting on all of them.

What do we make of their unusual level of closeness that seemed decidedly odd to many people? Tiny and Dee did the whole mother-daughter thing very differently from the mainstream model, and both endured some criticism for it. But there was something very loving and loyal about it.

Looking at their relationship in retrospect, I have to say that it may fly in the face of what is considered normal in Western culture, but it was very human-hearted and kind. In our society, it is normal for children to abandon their parents to face old age and sickness on their own. But other cultures have created healthy, extended families where the generations live closely together, often under the same roof, and care for and support one another.

In Tiny's case, I see a daughter unwilling to abandon a mother who caused her some difficulty, and perhaps needed her help too much. I see the compassion and beauty in a daughter who chose to stay in solidarity with her own mother as she faced poverty and mental health problems.

Tiny stayed in solidarity with Dee as surely as Tiny stayed in solidarity with the homeless poor. What remains is a legacy of love that no one can deny. Dee gave Tiny life; and then Tiny, with absolutely heartfelt loyalty, gave love back to her mother, and in doing so, she made Dee's life better, richer, more full of love.

What lesson do we take away from these two deaths? Cinnamon suffered from poverty and illness herself, yet found the energy to help Kevin. Kevin, a brilliant man plagued by alcoholism, couldn't help himself, yet he had the heart to care about others. Dee suffered mental and physical ailments that could have consumed her, yet devoted her life to working for justice. And Tiny kept her mother going with her steadfast love. Let's just acknowledge all this for what it is -- Amazing Grace.


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