Death in the West: Memorial for a Day Laborer

Roberto worked without medical coverage or a living wage. Not a cent went into Social Security for the aging worker. When he died in a doorway of the defunct U-Haul rental shop in at Allston Way and San Pablo in Berkeley, it took a day or so for anyone to notice.
A sign posted nearby had poignant words: “May the homeless man who died here find shelter and peace. May we find a better way.” Daniel McMullan photo

A sign posted nearby had poignant words: “May the homeless man who died here find shelter and peace. May we find a better way.” Daniel McMullan photo


Commentary by Daniel McMullan

“The west is the best

The west is the best

Get here, and we’ll do the rest.”

— Jim Morrison, The Doors, “The End”

They stand on the corner of 4th Street and Hearst in Berkeley. If they are lucky, they spent the night before in an apartment shared with a dozen others somewhere around Gilman Street. If not, they woke up on the cold ground, hidden in the bushes of Aquatic Park.

They are immigrant day laborers from south of the United States and they have been used as a wedge against what used to be a bustling, unionized local workforce of small builders and remodelers. Their below-poverty wages couldn’t be beat.

As those legitimate businesses folded under the constant pressure, our jails and prisons had to grow larger. This was America’s only true low-cost housing boom since the first coming of Reagan.

Roberto Benitez was one of these workers. For 30 years, he labored for Berkeley homeowners that were doing it on the cheap, often without permits, plans, safety inspections, taxes and all those other pesky details. Roberto worked without medical coverage, safety inspections, dust masks or a living wage.

Not a cent went into Social Security for the aging worker and when he died in a doorway of the defunct U-Haul rental shop at Allston Way and San Pablo Avenue, it took a day or so for anyone to notice.

I spoke to Roberto’s longtime friends and workmates. They told me that his cough became worse and worse and he went to Alta Bates Hospital where he was discharged just as bad off or worse than when he entered. They suspected that the pills they gave him were just enough to overdose him with a little alcohol.

They told me that Roberto came from Mexico where “his family had money, but his brother cheated him of his share.” Roberto didn’t always live on the streets, they said, but in these last years it has been tough on all of them.

I was called by Berkeley City Commissioner Cheryl Davilla who thought we should have a memorial for Roberto. She lives close to where he was sleeping in the doorway and had actually walked by and thought it was odd that he was still sleeping in exactly the same spot and position. She debated whether she should disturb him, but by the time she passed on foot someone finally realized — he was dead.

‘It was rather beautiful’

Cheryl, Jim Reagan and I put the word out about the memorial, but I was surprised at the number of folks that came out. It really was rather beautiful with candles, flowers, friends old and new and South American flute music that I thought was spiritual and fitting.

We spoke of the men, mostly nameless, that are used for cheap labor and then cast off, and are pitted against others in the community.

We spoke about a hospital that not only turns away the poor and abuses its workers, but no longer serves most of us in the community. We spoke of the Multi-Cultural Center nearby that is supposed to be out here to serve this very at-risk population of people.

We spoke of our cities creating priorities that exclude homeless people from getting any help and reading HUD regulations so narrowly that it is nearly impossible to get any help for anyone. We spoke of the hypocrisy of calling this a Sanctuary City.

The Coordinated Entry System, or HUB as it is called, had a huge number of calls for help and found housing for a grand total of 20 — with a 1.1 million-dollar budget.

I spent a week trying to get help for a disabled woman in a wheelchair and had to watch as she slept in front of the women’s shelter one night, and the Harrison House the next. But she could not get in. I couldn’t believe it.

I made calls to Sharon Leyden, the HUB’s director of services, but my call was never returned. I spoke to another employee who said she took the woman’s intake. She said she didn’t meet the criteria. I asked if I could bring her in for a reconsideration. She said: “No.”

I later learned that according to “HUB Guidelines,” everyone that goes there and asks for help and is refused (and that is almost everyone) is entitled to come in for reconsideration.

If you make a call to HUB and get the answering machine, it says they will call you back in 24 hours. That clearly is not happening. But I am just a City Commissioner — I am sure they are treating the homeless much better….

I sat in the meetings that created the HUB and could feel a disaster coming. But I never imagined it would get this bad.

That line of the “Service Resistant” homeless person is a huge farce put on by your local “in the developer’s pocket” politicians. What we really face is Resistant Services.

Flowers and candles were placed as a memorial on the sidewalk where a day laborer died in Berkeley. Written in chalk are the words: “A man was found here dead, alone. His name was Roberto Benitez.” Daniel McMullan photo

Flowers and candles were placed as a memorial on the sidewalk where a day laborer died in Berkeley. Written in chalk are the words: “A man was found here dead, alone. His name was Roberto Benitez.” Daniel McMullan photo


Dying in Doorways

Here we have people dying in doorways and showing up in the doorways of places that are supposed to help — like Alta Bates Hospital and the HUB — to no avail. We have choked in the dust of greed of relentless building for years but there still is no housing that anyone can afford.

When we ask where is all this vaunted help for the homeless that we hear about from our leaders, we are told the homeless are resistant to help. We are told this by political leaders who use their office as just another step on a career ladder — a ladder that is not grounded in service to the community, but service to themselves.

They cite how much money they spend, but never say what it is spent on. We have to elect people who are our people, and who care for people, and care for our neighborhoods. We have to have every dime accounted for that is supposedly spent on the homeless and services for the working poor.

Something has to be done about the giant, healthcare-eating monolith called Sutter Health that squeezes to death its workers, while leaving the citizens it is supposed to serve without a hospital or urgent care. We were warned not only when they swallowed up Marin County’s hospital, but also when they built a new building at Oakland’s Summit Hospital (a building called The Pavilion — Pavilion being a code word meaning “for the elite”) with only single rooms, it was obvious they had found the formula for their “rich folks only” agenda.

Create hospitals that only can accept the most premium of insurance, so refusal falls on someone else. Pretty tricky. Try going there with a broken arm like my friend did last week. They refused her insurance and discharged her without setting her arm. This is the treatment offered to your average Berkeley worker. You can imagine what poor Roberto Benitez received.

We have our work cut out for us if we are going to have a land of liberty and justice for all, and a country that promotes the general welfare of our world. I wish Cheryl Davilla the best in her bid for council in the 2nd district, and thank her for the years of work in my neighborhood, and for her work on the memorial to Roberto. It is going to take a lot of folks like her and you and us, if the dust is ever going to settle and we are going to ever see the world, and each other, and breathe again.

Take a moment of silence for Roberto Benitez, then take a moment for us all.

This is the end

Beautiful friend

This is the end

My only friend, the end

It hurts to set you free

— Jim Morrison, “The End”


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Gimme Some Truth

Compiled by Daniel McMullan

It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving. — Mother Teresa

You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give. — Kahlil Gibran

If nature has made you for a giver, your hands are born open, and so is your heart; and though there may be times when your hands are empty, your heart is always full, and you can give things out of that — warm things, kind things, sweet things — help and comfort and laughter — and sometimes gay, kind laughter is the best help of all. — Frances Hodgson Burnett

Love only grows by sharing. You can only have more for yourself by giving it away to others. — Brian Tracy

Good works is giving to the poor and the helpless, but divine works is showing them their worth to the One who matters. — Criss Jami

I tell you, in my opinion, the cornerstone of democracy is free press — that’s the cornerstone. — Milos Forman

The press doesn’t stop publishing, by the way, in a fascist escalation; it simply watches what it says. That too can be an incremental process, and the pace at which the free press polices itself depends on how journalists are targeted. — Naomi Wolf

When the public’s right to know is threatened, and when the rights of free speech and free press are at risk, all of the other liberties we hold dear are endangered. — Christopher Dodd

A Life Consecrated to Compassion and Justice

On the bleak streets of the Tenderloin, a sister took a stand against inhumanity. Her solidarity was inspired by the beatitudes and consecrated to the poor.

The Invisible Natural Cathedral of People’s Park

Builders, please go away. Allow the beauty of an Invisible Natural Cathedral to remain, a living shrine of open space that gives refuge to all people.

Street Spirit Interview with Sister Bernie Galvin

This atrocity was happening in a very wealthy city. It was happening right under our noses. It was very visible. And there was not the united voice of the faith community speaking out. That was the spark of Religious Witness. From that moment, I knew what I had to do.

Interview with Sister Bernie Galvin, Part Two

“What’s forming in my mind is Jesus in the temple when he became angry at the unjust and very exclusive systems of society. That is the very reason that there are the poor and the marginalized. It is not enough just to provide food, clothing and housing.”

‘Such Is the Magic and Spirit of People’s Park’

The mayor has no understanding of the awful defeat the loss of People’s Park would be. No comprehension of the cost in lives and the sacrifices people have made for the Park’s ideals. So many still find it a refuge in a country needing a political and spiritual overhaul.

I Remember Who I Am

“And Now Where?” Lithograph by Rockwell Kent

By and by, I calm down. I meditate. I pray. It is a beautiful day. The sun is setting. I weave my way toward the spot where I sleep, where nobody knows where to find me. I look to the stars, and say my prayers to the God who believes in Me.