During St. Mary’s vigil for homeless people who died in the past year, Dave Kim, an artist with the Community Rejuvenation Project, painted a portrait of a homeless man holding and comforting another person on the streets. Mina Gaskell Photo

During St. Mary’s vigil for homeless people who died in the past year, Dave Kim, an artist with the Community Rejuvenation Project, painted a portrait of a homeless man holding and comforting another person on the streets. Mina Gaskell Photo

 

by Molly Woodward

Every winter, when freezing temperatures and wet weather make surviving on the streets even harder, communities across the nation take time to remember the people who died homeless over the past year, and to recommit to the fight for one of the most basic of human rights — the right to shelter. Last winter, communities in more than 150 cities sponsored memorial events.

St. Mary’s Center in Oakland, a longtime advocate for housing rights, has provided shelter and services for homeless and low-income seniors for more than 35 years. At 11 a.m. on December 22, a group of more than 75 people gathered shoulder-to-shoulder in St. Andrew’s park in Oakland, across from St. Mary’s Center, to honor the homeless people who have passed away in the past year.

St. Mary’s has held such a memorial annually for about a decade. The reason, said Executive Director Carol Johnson, is “because people keep dying homeless.”

St. Mary’s staff and community members, many of whom are currently or formerly homeless, collaborated to create the ceremony.

“The memorial allows us to remember as a community and reconnect with the tragedy of being homeless, and to motivate our work for justice,” said staff member Susan Werner, an art therapist at St. Mary’s. The gray morning of December 22 was brightened by flowers, which participants tossed into the center of the circle in honor of a person or an intention.

Incredibly, no one knows just how many people died homeless in the East Bay in 2010. Despite the tireless work of activists, Alameda County has continually refused to distinguish between deaths of people who are housed and people who are homeless. This makes it very difficult to track the reasons why people are dying homeless, whether their conditions are improving or worsening, and what methods might be taken to help prevent their deaths.

An estimated 3.5 million people are currently living homeless in the United States, according to a 2010 report by the Western Regional Advocacy Project. That number has been rising steadily for years.

After opening words and a collective moment of silence, the memorial participants held a candlelight processional back to St. Mary’s, where they stood among painted prayer flags around a painting entitled “Heart of All” by artist and community member Leon Kennedy. Kennedy, who has been making art for more than 40 years, was inspired by love and the sense that “what is real is not outward appearances.”

Shared poems, prayers, songs, and readings were interwoven with rich melodies from saxophonist Arthur Alexander.

The St. Mary’s community finds motivation in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations Assembly in 1948. The Declaration unequivocally holds that every human being has the right to shelter and health care.

Community member Gregory Branch read the words of the Declaration: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.”

After the reading, Branch spoke of the injustice of a society that seems to find it acceptable to leave people suffering and dying on the streets every day.

“You can’t have dignity unless you have a place to be,” Branch said.

In the United States, “a place to be” is treated not as a basic human right, but as a privilege. In an interview following the memorial, Carol Johnson noted the increasing difficulty of securing a place to live. More people are dependent on subsidized housing, and there’s far less of it. This forces people to compete for the few available units.

And as more and more local municipalities criminalize the act of occupying space on the street, space itself seems to have become a privilege in the United States. If it is illegal for a person to occupy space — to have “a place to be” — in a certain sense it becomes illegal to live if you’re homeless.

A 2008 study by the National Coalition for the Homeless found that people without houses are three to six times more likely to become ill than housed people, and three to four times more likely to die. Johnson explained that at St. Mary’s, seniors who have been chronically homeless often have the physical condition of people at least ten years older.

Oakland Memorial Honors People Who Died Homeless in the Past Year

Participants at st. Mary’s memorial put candles around a painting entitled “Heart of All” by artist and community member Leon Kennedy. Mina Gaskell Photo

Participants at st. Mary’s memorial put candles around a painting entitled “Heart of All” by artist and community member Leon Kennedy. Mina Gaskell Photo

The national statistics reflect this. The average life expectancy in the housed population is 78 years; the average life expectancy in the homeless population is between 42 and 52 years of age, according to a study by the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Good nutrition, good personal hygiene, and basic first aid become hard to maintain, if not impossible, for someone without shelter. And conditions that require regular treatment, like tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, are extremely difficult to treat without adequate housing. It’s a very hard life to be homeless.

The harshness of life on the streets, the callousness of a society that turns its back on poverty, the people who die as a result and have become invisible to local government: these are painful realities to confront. Yet while St. Mary’s memorial was a time for mourning, it was also a healing and empowering event.

As Werner expressed it, “Hearts are lightened and spirits are brightened when we work and move and sing together for justice.” Through every element of the ceremony was a sense that out of darkness and sadness a community can rise up together and make a positive difference.

In the words of community member James Brooks, “This right here is the nucleus of some change.”

The memorial closed with the song, “We Shall Overcome.” As if by way of punctuation, brilliant rays of sunshine broke through the clouds.

Afterward, people enjoyed one another’s company in the courtyard, talking and reflecting on the event before going inside for lunch. “It was most impressive to remember the contribution of those who have gone on before,” said community member Mary Collins.

An artist with the Community Rejuvenation Project, Dave Kim, tapped into the spirit of the day to create a painting live, in the moment. He was moved by the spiritual aspect of the ceremony, and by the fact that at St. Mary’s, “it’s peers helping peers and raising leaders from within to advocate for justice.”

Community member Brenda Whitfield, who earlier warmed the ceremony with a powerful and beautiful hymn, appreciated the spirit of caring that infused the afternoon. “I think every day should be celebrated with love,” she said.

Considering the connection between the day’s memorial and the historic fight for human rights, Branch remembered a quote from Malcolm X: “You can’t have peace without justice. No one who doesn’t have justice can be in peace.”

Branch appreciates the diversity and community at St. Mary’s. “There are all kinds of people and all kinds of stories that everybody can learn from,” he said. “You begin to see the benefit of human life and human experience, and you begin to cherish that. And the appreciation and reverence for human beings helps you get on with the business of making life better.”

A reverence for human beings is what St. Mary’s memorial was all about. When we as a society commit to recognizing and appreciating the human beings behind the tragedy of homelessness, perhaps we can then get on with the business of making life better.

 

 

A New Year’s Wish

by Maureen Hartmann

On December 30, 2010

I saw a middle-aged man,

with a gray top hat,

a scraggly beard, and scruffy clothes,

standing forlornly near the

corner of shattuck and University

in Berkeley.

I wished him a Happy new Year.

My greeting was a prayer of hope

for this despairing world.

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