International Day for the Eradication of Poverty

While Occupy Oakland protesters were marching in the streets, another wing of the anti-poverty movement gathered to take a stand against injustice. Instead of marching, they were drumming. Despite the harsh reality of poverty, people at St. Mary’s manage to find hope amidst the struggle to survive.

Members of St. Mary’s Center pound on their homemade drums. Tom Lowe photo

 

by Paige Hustead

 

Even as protesters from Occupy Oakland were marching through the streets downtown, another wing of the anti-poverty movement had gathered to take a stand against economic injustices. But instead of marching, they were drumming.

The community room at St. Mary’s Center in Oakland vibrated with the pulsing beat of homemade drums. The loud, passionate voices of seniors from the center’s Recovery 55 support group resounded off the walls. Audience members clapped and stomped along with the beat. The energy was palpable.

This was a day of celebration held to honor, not only the strides made to combat poverty, but also the commitment and spirit of low-income seniors who refused to be destroyed even in the worst economic times. In the words of one speaker, “We keep making it despite the hardships. If you here, you goin’ through.”

One senior, 61-year-old John B., is all too familiar with “goin’ through.” He struggles to make ends meet each month. His meager income from Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is scarcely enough to cover his food, housing, and prescription medication costs. One year shy of the “62 and older” requirement for most senior-subsidized buildings, it is up to John to be creative with his resources in order to keep himself housed, fed, and healthy.

John’s story is more common than most people realize. The extent of poverty and homelessness among senior citizens in Oakland is staggering, even though it is mostly unseen. The harsh reality of poverty and the lack of affordable housing, health care, and resources for those in need affect more and more people each day.

St. Mary’s Center Executive Director Carol Johnson exclaimed, “We live in a world where so many brothers and sisters live in despair, in want, and in poverty.”

Despite this upsetting reality, people at St. Mary’s Center manage to somehow find hope amidst the struggle.

Johnson said, “We’re here to remember the many women and men who refused to give up hope. Our predecessors believed that we can change this world. Today, we renew our collective commitment to stand in solidarity with all people living in poverty and declare that development is only sustainable when it includes everyone. We fight to ensure that those rights should be restored.”

Building a campaign to support those basic human rights was the initial motivation for this worldwide day of recognition. The observance of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty can be traced back to October 17, 1987.

On that day, more than 100,000 people gathered in Paris, where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in 1948, to honor the victims of poverty, violence, and hunger. They proclaimed that poverty is “a violation of human rights and affirmed the need to come together to ensure that these rights are respected.”

Since then, people of all backgrounds, beliefs, and social origins have gathered every year to renew their commitment and display their solidarity with the poor.

The October 17th event is a time to “acknowledge the effort and struggle of people living in poverty, a chance for them to make their concerns heard, and a moment to recognize that poor people are the first ones to fight against poverty.”

St. Mary’s community members honored this struggle through their stories. Hope and Justice Coordinator Elena Berman declared, “Today our center recognizes the community with the power of testimony. Let us learn from our words. Let us speak our truths into action, connect our stories with one another, form bridges, and create connection so that our struggles are no longer individualized.”

Kim, a local artist who volunteers at St. Mary’s Center, also emphasized the importance of sharing stories with one another. She said, “When we listen to each other’s stories we move from alienation to solidarity because we see ourselves in one another. A bond is created. We are no longer separate or alone. How we live and who we are matters!”

This sharing of truths took place in many different forms on October 17. Collaboration with Scotland Yard, a nonprofit agency that does technology and media work with foster youth, led to a moving film with senior perspectives on the basic human rights and what it means to live in poverty. Seniors also created artwork, skits, and poems to express their word and their bond.

One senior, J. Fernandez, shared his poem with the crowd. Fernandez came to St. Mary’s Center in 2008, at a time when he had hit rock bottom and was living on the streets in Berkeley. Fernandez had been crippled by the dehumanizing effects of poverty, violence, homelessness, and abuse. He came to St. Mary’s Center in a fragile state. He described himself as “shy, sad, and all alone.” After staying in the shelter for the winter, he eventually moved into the transitional house and then into his own apartment.

Fernandez expressed gratitude for his community, noting that he experienced a “powerful rebirth” when he began to face his own trauma. He now uses art and poetry as a tool for personal expression, creative outlet, and healing. He shared “A Real Poem” at the Eradication of Poverty event [see his full poem at the end of this article].

His extraordinary poem was a deeply felt portrait of his friend, Juan Gonzales, who lived on the streets of Oakland until his final night came in Old Man’s Park.

“One December night he fell asleep

on a bench

In Old Man’s Park

And never woke up again.

His beautiful heart just stopped

The streets had worked him too hard

For too long

And now he was done.”

It may seem that the death of Juan Gonzales is simply one more tragedy to befall the countless multitudes of nameless, faceless men and women who die from the hardships of homelessness on the streets of Oakland. Yet through the moving poem by J. Fernandez, Juan was given back a name and a face that will live on in the memories of those of us who heard this eloquent remembrance.

And through the deep insight of this poem, Juan Gonzales also has been given back a voice — a voice so powerful it can still speak out in resistance to the way poor people are victimized in our culture.

In a remarkable passage, Fernandez enables his fallen friend to speak out against the persecution of the poor.

“And if he were here today

Right now

He would say this:

‘Let us not be stereotyped.

Let us not be cast aside

Marginalized

Let us not be victimized

Let us not be shamed into silence.’”

Fernandez’s poem has rescued his friend Juan from the oblivion of poverty and death. And it has redeemed him from the demeaning stereotypes that cloud our perception of the humanity of poor people.

Then the poem goes on to reveal the deepest meaning of solidarity. Fernandez shows us in unforgettable images that we are all one with this homeless man. He may have died a lonely death on the streets, but through this poem, his spirit lives on in all of us. In a breathtaking passage, Juan Gonzales is resurrected to take part in all our struggles against injustice.

“Whether you’re in prison in New York

Or a detention camp in the fields

of Nebraska

I am you

Whether you’re sleeping on a square

of cardboard in Oakland

or under a grid in Philadelphia

I am you

I’m in every living pulsating cell

that hungers for justice

and the right to love.”

Just as J. Fernandez and his friend Juan Gonzales struggled to survive, so do millions struggle on a daily basis, in our nation and around the globe. The harsh economic climate has led to more people falling into poverty. Yet growing numbers of people are not just standing by, but are actively moving to rally against injustice.

On Oct. 17, 2011, the United Nations Secretary General said “investing in people is the smartest way to eradicate poverty.”

On this international day of recognition, we stand united with our brothers and sisters all over the world who are giving their lives and energy towards combating poverty.

We are one and the same. We are the 99%. We are remembering those who have gone before and we are joining the rally cry of those who continue to speak out today, right now, in our midst.

Just as the Occupy Wall Street actions were occurring all over the country, the Eradication of Poverty day was also being honored in many cities, in the same spirit and with the same hope of creating change.

 ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

A homeless man holds a brother who has fallen on the streets. Art by Dave Kim

 

A Real Poem

by J. Fernandez

In this sooty soup

Grit gray rain

I need to share

Let it all go

And tell you about a real poem

A poem made of flesh and blood

With far seeing eyes

 

and a deep

 

and powerful grace.

 

His name was Juan Gonzales

Juan Gonzales

I met him in the line

Waiting for a bowl of soup and a

piece of bread

And soon, within weeks, we were

inseparable

He became a brother to me

Where he walked, I walked

Where he ate, I ate

Where he slept, I slept

When I was sick, he nursed me

When he was sick, I nursed him

 

Sometimes

we even slept under the same blanket

At times, he reminded me of St. Francis

Because he loved pigeons too

Called them his little brothers.

 

Then just when I was beginning to see

That this man

Who walked around with the words

of Jesus in his pocket

That this man could teach me

something real

What we expect but never talked about

Especially on the street — happened:

One December night he fell asleep

on a bench

In Old Man’s Park

And never woke up again.

His beautiful heart just stopped

The streets had worked him too hard

 

For too long

And now he was done.

 

So remember:

His name was Juan Gonzales

And he died on a bench

In Old Man’s Park

Not because he was a drunk, demented,

or insane

Not because he was on heroin or crack

Not because he didn’t want to live.

 

The truth is simple

He wanted what we all want:

 

To love and be loved

in the peace of his own God

And something more

More than anything

to be useful

to be useful

 

Yes, the truth is simple:

He died because

And only because

Like me

Maybe like you

He was poor

Gritty gray poor

And except for Sister Mary and her

few sisters, here and there.

 

You tell me

Who?

Who gives a damn about the poor

anymore?

Stand or kneel

Beg or cry

We are on our own

No one knew that better

 

Or deeper

Than my brother Juan Gonzales.

 

And if he were here today

Right now

He would say this:

“Let us not be stereotyped.

Let us not be cast aside

Marginalized

Let us not be victimized

Let us not be shamed into silence

Whatever your name is

I am you

Whatever language or culture you

were born into

I am you

Whatever racial group you belong to

I am you

Whether you are man or woman

I am you

Whatever faith you hold onto

I am you

Whether you’re in prison in New York

Or a detention camp in the fields

of Nebraska

I am you

Whether you’re sleeping on a square

of cardboard in Oakland

or under a grid in Philadelphia

I am you

I’m in every living pulsating cell

that hungers for justice

and the right to love.

 

I am you.

I am you.

A beautiful painting by Leon Kennedy a community member of St. Mary's Center. The figure in the foreground holds his arms open in prayer for the community. Tom Lowe photo

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