The October 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

The Aristocracy and the Disaster

In Katrina's Wake, Oakland Batters Homeless

A Perfect Storm of Racism

Katrina: Ongoing Human Disaster

FCNL Speaks Out on Katrina

Kerry's Kids: Health Care for Poor Children

Fresh Start Gives Kindness Awards

The Dying Gift of Sharon Ostman

A 500-Year-Old War on the Poor

37 Million Live in Poverty in US

Julia Vinograd: Poet Laureate of Berkeley Streets

Innovative Plans for Homeless Housing

Disabled Woman on a Long Road Back Home

Photographer's Eye for the Dignity of People

Poor Leonard On Prejudice

The Flower Lady

October Poetry of the Streets


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.

A Long, Hard Road Back to a Life of Promise

"When I went to Jerry Brown's office, their recommendation was to go to Highland Hospital and spend the night in the emergency waiting room!"

by Lydia Gans

After being homeless for three years, Cindy Butler learned that "the first thing you lose when you become homeless is your dignity." Lydia Gans photo

When her 16-year-old son was killed at a sweet 16 party, Cindy Butler's life spiraled downward. Earlier, her husband had introduced her to cocaine, and at that point, she said, "I became an addict. I smoked cocaine, smoked cigarettes and ignored my diabetes."

Her weight skyrocketed. For three years she continued to deteriorate. Then she made a decision to turn her life around. She moved to Hawaii, convinced that "the islands are healing islands." She left for Hawaii on her son's birthday, making a promise to his memory that she would heal herself.

"I wasn't going back to cocaine," she vowed, "and I didn't. This is my eleventh year clean and sober. And this is my ninth year cigarette-free. I never was an alcoholic. And I work on my cursing all the time. I ask God for guidance."

It has been a long, hard road back to a life that promises a better future.

Cindy was born 56 years ago in Southern California. Her father worked in the hotel business, a job that required the family to travel to many places. "So I've been exposed to many different cultures, many different people," she explained.

When she was 11, her mother died. Her father wasn't able to take care of her, and she was sent to live with grandparents who couldn't handle a teenager. But she was fortunate in that she was taken in by foster parents about whom she says, "I couldn't have picked out a better set of parents."

She talks fondly about the lessons she learned from them that she applied to raising her own son. She was so proud of her son during his life, and to this very day. "He was my angel and continues to be my angel," Cindy said. She has remained close to the girlfriend he was with when he was killed, calling the young woman her "play-daughter" and her children, her "play-grandchildren."

Going to Hawaii in 1994 was a happy move for Cindy, even though her husband, who went with her, worked only sporadically and never managed to kick his crack habit. Cindy got a good job as a computer analyst.

She is rightfully proud of her record, having worked all her life since she was 12 years old, even putting herself through college. But now she found that she was working too hard, too many hours, and in 1997 she became so disabled from the effects of the diabetes, she had to quit.

She was eligible for SSDI and, ever since, the monthly disability benefit has been her source of support. She makes it very clear that her income is from government disability insurance, money she has earned from her years of employment.

At her husband's urging, the couple came back to California. Cindy calls that decision "the biggest mistake I ever made." Her husband had promised to get a job, but "that didn't happen." He had money from an insurance settlement which she had hoped would buy them some permanent housing, but he spent it all on crack. And when he was on crack, he would become increasingly abusive and beat her.

Once again, her life was on a downward spiral. She recalls that she would pray to God, "Please let me get away." It took her five years to have the courage, or the desperation, to move out.

She walked out, or rather, she rolled out, into homelessness and disability. "April 2002, I became homeless for the first time in my life. I was devastated. I was in a wheelchair; I didn't know where to go."

Cindy Butler has housing now, her health is stabilized, and she has plans for the future. Asked what her life is like now, she declares: "Life is beautiful. Everything is coming back."

She can walk and only uses her wheelchair for going long distances. She has had gastric bypass surgery and is losing weight. She has started taking classes in ASL (American Sign Language) and plans eventually to move back to Hawaii and open her own business.

This past April, three years to the day after she became homeless, she moved into a comfortable home which she shares with several other people with disabilities. Now she has her name on Section 8 housing lists "from Sacramento to Hawaii" and is ready to move into a place of her own whenever and wherever it turns up.

In a recent interview, Cindy described some of the experiences in her three miserable years of homelessness. "The first thing you lose when you become homeless is your dignity," she recalled. That loss was exacerbated by the first place she went to for help, the Richmond Rescue Mission shelter, a place with a reputation for stripping people of their dignity. The shelter is not wheelchair accessible, she said. "I had to scoot up three flights of stairs on my rear end."

She started applying for a Section 8 housing voucher but found that people with disabilities no longer had priority. The Berkeley women's shelter was the only shelter she could find in the Bay Area that was wheelchair accessible. She stayed there once for three months and, on another occasion, for one month. There was a longer stay in a transitional housing situation in a rather unpleasant neighborhood.

Trying to get into the Shelter Plus Care program, she encountered another setback. It turns out that being disabled is not sufficient to get into that program; one has to have a dual diagnosis. They told her, she recalled, "You can be disabled, but you have to have HIV, be mentally dysfunctional or be an addict." She explained that she had been an addict, but had been clean and sober for ten years without going through a formal program. They then suggested that she go into a program for 45 days just to become eligible. She saw that as being dishonest and refused.

When she was really desperate, she went to the politicians. "When I went to Jerry Brown's office," she said, "their recommendation was to go to Highland Hospital and spend the night in the emergency waiting room!" The person who told her that admitted that they even send homeless families there.

At one point, Cindy said, "I went there every night for a month. I didn't know what to do. I thought the mayor's office was the answer and that was the answer they gave me."

When she was confronted by the police who patrol the hospital, Cindy admitted she was homeless but explained, "For one thing, I can plug my chair in here and get it recharged. And the second thing is Jerry Brown's office told me to come here." They had a hard time believing that, she recalls grimly, but they let her stay. She saw other homeless people being chased out.
She is just about to get her Section 8 voucher for another county and will be moving shortly. Eventually, she plans to go back to Hawaii. She will continue her sign language training and go back to work once she gets her final certification.

Cindy Butler is feeling good about her life once more. She is making a commitment -- and not just to get a job and live comfortably. She intends to help others, to advocate for the disabled. She wants to write, and "one day," she vows, "I'll put a book together, a guide for the homeless disabled." It's a subject she knows very well.

1515 Webster St,#303
Oakland, CA 94612Phone: (510) 238-8080, ext. 303

E-mail: Spirit

© 2002-2005 STREET SPIRIT. All rights reserved.

Published by American Friends Service Committee

Editor : Terry Messman

Web Design: Robert Mills, Web Weaver CyberB Solutions