The September 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Police Raids on Fresno Homeless

Memorial to Mary Who Died

New Orleans After Katrina

Troubles for the Berkeley Housing Authority

Link Between Foster Care and Homelessness

An Epidemic of Rising Poverty

Angel Behind Prison Bars

Blaming Street People for Cody's Demise

MASC Storage Lockers Offer New Help

Interview with Osha Neumann, Artist/Attorney

Resisting Unjust CEO Pay Rates

Liberation from Hell of Addiction

Poor Leonard's Almanack: On Social Change

Sept. Poetry of the Streets

Review of Jan Steckel's Poems


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.

Memorial to Mary Who Died on the Streets of Oakland

by Lydia Gans

Art by Tiffany Sankary

It is sad to think of Mary's lonely death. Whatever fears prevented her from going into a shelter, Ken Katz said, "It was amazing that she survived." And it was amazing that she was not bitter, but remained the sweet woman everyone liked and cared about.

She died alone, on the cold concrete in the back of Albertson's parking lot in Oakland's Lakeshore district. She had been homeless for more years than anybody could remember. Her name was Mary and she was 65 or 66 years old; but beyond that, nobody knew much about her, not her last name, nor where she was from, nor if she had family somewhere.

When Mary died, no relatives turned up to mourn her. Said local resident and activist Ken Katz, "She led an anonymous life and died an anonymous death."

Yet, in the words of Oakland City Councilmember Desley Brooks, "She really did have a family. She was part of something and I think she knew that." Brooks was one of two dozen people who gathered at Lakeshore Baptist Church to hold a memorial for Mary. She reflected the feelings of many of the people gathered there when she said, "Mary had become part of my life."

For 10 years -- or maybe 15 or even more, nobody is sure -- Mary was seen around the Grand Avenue/Lakeshore neighborhood, on the street or in the coffee shops and eating places. People there got to know her, and they would sit and talk with her, and buy her food. Mary appreciated it, but she rebuffed every attempt to get her moved indoors.

Kathy McCarthy is a case worker at St. Mary's Center in Oakland which provides services and shelter for homeless and low-income seniors. She does outreach in the community and had tried to get housing and medical care for Mary. Mary was eligible for senior services and her health was deteriorating, but she always refused these attempts to help her. "She needed services desperately," McCarthy said, "but the system couldn't deliver them and she died."

Pastor Jim Hopkins opened the memorial with a reading from the scriptures, something from the Old Testament and something from the New. Someone else later commented on the appropriateness of the readings, since nobody knew whether Mary was a Christian or Jew.

Several people came forward to talk about their memories of her. Deborah Young works in the Lakeshore Post Office. She recalled how Mary "used to hang around near the post office... next to a co-worker's car. I guess she felt some love." The postal workers would stop to talk with her, and give her money for food. "We have Mary in our hearts, in our prayers," Young said.

Lisa (she didn't give her last name) has a cleaning business on Lakeshore. She spoke of giving Mary food and asking her if she would go into a nursing home if it could be arranged. That was not very long ago. Mary was having some health problems and she seemed to agree.

So Lisa connected with a social worker she knows and put together a plan -- but by the time she got it all together, Mary was dead. But Lisa was inspired and plans to start a project to get seniors off the street. "Mary is my inspiration and I will not forget her," she declared.

An elderly man got up and told a story. It wasn't about Mary, yet it seemed appropriate. He told of his grandparents who had a farm. One day a hobo came to the door. His grandmother invited him into the parlor, gave him food and talked with him for a while. After he left, the old gentlemen recalled, he and his brother confronted their grandmother, "Grandma, you won't let us in the front parlor." She answered him, "You never know who God is."

G.G. Greenhouse has been director of Alameda County Health Care for the Homeless since 1988 and she remembered Mary from her early days on the job. "She would have her good days and her bad days" when she resisted efforts to move her into housing. Greenhouse went on to talk about the huge problem of homelessness that people try to ignore. "When we take out our mobile van (with) case managers to Berkeley, Oakland, San Leandro, Hayward, Fremont, Livermore -- places that people swore there are no homeless people -- and yet every time, they find us and line up."

And, like Mary, there are countless homeless people who die unknown every year.

Greenhouse urged the mourners, "If anyone wants to do something as a tribute to Mary, go to the City Council and tell them redevelopment money is not just for people who can afford a $300,000 condo; there is another level that needs to be housed." She ended by observing that "now Mary did find a home."

Mary was a small woman. Someone described her as "a very gentle person." She "kept herself amazingly clean," according to Ken Katz, who told of seeing her "doing her morning bath at the Splash Pad park.... She washed her feet and her socks and hung them on the wall to dry."

Though she was dependent on people to give her clothes, Mary was particular about what she took and managed to look well dressed, even fashionable. Brooks said that the glasses she wore were "not the big old frames that old people usually wear."

Whatever her issues may have been, whatever fears prevented her from going into some sort of shelter, Katz observed that "it was amazing that she survived." And it was amazing that she was not bitter, but remained the sweet women who everyone liked and cared about.
It is sad to think of Mary's lonely death. And sad to think of what she might have contributed to society had she not had to put all her efforts into just surviving.

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