St. Mary’s Center Honors the Countless Lives Lost on the Streets

These reflections from the Homeless Memorial held at St. Mary’s Center in December 2013, are in honor of those who died on the streets of the East Bay. We must remember the people who died homeless and poor and reclaim our awareness of the sanctity and dignity of every human life.

This photograph was taken by Charles Ford, a senior member of the community at St. Mary's Center, who is documenting the extent of homelessness in the East Bay.

The Sanctity and Dignity of Human Life

by Carol Johnson

Thank you for joining us in this circle of remembrance and prayer. Sixty-five years ago today, the nations of the world came together as the United Nations and adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is fitting that our memorial for homeless people who have died coincides with the anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights — and the memorial of Nelson Mandela, because as the former president of South Africa, he revered the Declaration of Human Rights as a touchstone for nation-building and governing.

It is vital to remember Mandela’s wise words with regards to human rights and the role that governments and all of us together have in assuring these rights. Mandela considered poverty one of the greatest evils in the world and spoke out against inequality everywhere.

So we are here today to remember the lives of people who died homeless and poor and to reclaim our profound awareness of the sanctity and dignity of every human life. Yes, we are here together to change the world — to make it a little easier for people to feed, clothe and shelter themselves — to cry out for justice and for the broad interpretation and full implementation of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

Dorothy Day reminds us: We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever-widening circle will reach around the world. We can open our hearts. Quite simply there is nothing we can do but love, and dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.



Let Us Remember Those Who Died with No Homes and No Names

 by Ellen Danchik

As another winter approaches, it is impossible to find out how many people have died in Alameda County while homeless. No county or state agency bothers to care or even take notice of who is dying on their streets.

As a result of this governmental neglect, homeless people die unnoticed and unnamed. Even as we gather to mourn this loss of life, we do not know the names of so many who have died.

In 1990, I was working with the Oakland Union of the Homeless and Terry Messman was able to get permission for me to go to the Alameda County Coroner’s office. There, for two weeks, I researched the deaths of homeless people in the county. I had to go through hundreds of records of “transient deaths,” because no list was kept by county officials.

The Homeless Union then organized a demonstration where hundreds marched to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to report on how many people had died on the streets of the East Bay, and to demand that housing be built for the county’s homeless citizens.

Yet, to this day, there is still no list offered to the public by any governmental agency of those who have died on city streets. It is kept hidden from public view. It is a dirty little secret.

There are fewer shelter beds this year in Alameda County. The winter shelter housed at the former Oakland Army Base, with combined funding from several sources, which housed about 100 people last winter, lost its funding this year.

We are here to mourn the loss of those who have died needlessly on the street, and we are here to dedicate ourselves to fighting for permanent housing.

The city, county, state and country are all in violation of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25, which declares that all people have the right to housing, food, healthcare and an adequate income.

Government officials must be made to comply, to uphold human rights and meet the needs for housing and healthcare. We can start right here at St. Mary’s Center by joining the Hope and Justice Committee to fight for the right to housing.

I wrote a reflection called “Lost and Found” about all the lives that are tragically lost on the streets of our city.


We come together during the holidays,

a season when we enjoy the warmth and

togetherness of our families.

The familiar Christmas carol says it all:

“There’s no place like home

for the holidays.”

But for homeless people, there really is

no place to call home for the holidays,

or any other days.

Instead of home, so many people are lost,

Lost on the streets of our own cities,

Lost in the midst of the holiday season.

Lost…. No family is looking for them.

No warm home awaits their return.

No one is looking to see if they made it

home safely. If you have no home,

should that make you invisible?

In every faith tradition, we are taught

To have compassion for the poor.

The poor are especially blessed by God,

God loves them with a merciful love,

a love they often do not find on this earth.

Let us remember those without a home.

Let us all work together for justice and

homes for all, so the Lost may be Found.




Charles Ford photographed a homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk in Oakland right outside St. Mary's Center in Oakland as part of his "Documenting Homelessness" project.



Overcoming Poverty Is an Act of Justice

by Susan Werner

Nelson Mandela considered ending poverty a basic human duty: He said, “Overcoming poverty  is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.”

Elders in our community are fulfilling this basic human duty. They are trailblazing the path of upholding the right to dignity and a decent life, especially for our brothers and sisters who are homeless.

In the summer of 2013, eight seniors volunteered to participate in a photo documentary project about homelessness that was initiated by a local artist in our community, Taryn Evans.  Taryn wanted to care for and bring to light the plight of homeless people and to inspire solutions to end homelessness.

Two of the seniors who participated in the documentary project are Charles Ford and Darrell Black. Out of their direct experience of being homeless, Charles and Darrell have become motivated, articulate, impassioned, and emboldened as crusaders of conscience and justice. In conveying experiences of hardship and heartbreak, they do not dwell on the adversities they have experienced. They find meaning and purpose in their lives. They focus on what they understand and can offer from their own experiences.

These gentlemen have related to circumstances of their lives as an opportunity to cultivate compassion, to deepen their commitment to uphold basic human dignity, and to offer direction to us all who are united for justice. We thank these elders for shining their light and fueling our collective flame and responsibility to serve human rights and to end homelessness within our communities, cities, nation and world.


“I Know How Desperate It Feels”

by Charles Ford

I was homeless for about a year. I know how desperate it feels to not have a shelter bed. I never felt I could survive out on the streets. The cold weather magnifies the critical need for shelters. I hope that people of conscience will see homeless people as people.

When I took photos of people who are homeless, I was astounded to see so many homeless people all around this area, even someone sleeping outside the gate of St. Mary’s Center. I feel for people who are going through homelessness. There are a lot of ways people stay homeless and are constrained by poverty. Many suffer a mental poverty and are not capable of accessing services and putting their lives together.

Many steps and services are needed for a person to come out of poverty, to obtain housing, to have sufficient food. There is a lot to understand about people who are homeless, like what makes it difficult to accept support, and what makes it possible to receive support.

At St. Mary’s Center, I found the Shelter Program offered something better than I had experienced in other shelters. The atmosphere and people around me felt better; even sleeping on cots felt OK. I began to feel better about myself. I have a more positive outlook and am building a more fulfilling and productive life.

Now when I see people who are homeless and not well off, I open to their suffering, and feel connected to them. As I speak for people who cannot speak for themselves, I truly hope to be of help. Homeless people need connections to others who care and offer more possibilities for their lives.

This photograph by Charles Ford shows the isolation and loneliness that many homeless people endure even in the very midst of the busy city streets of the East Bay.


“Don’t Give Up — Life Is Not Over”

by Darrell Black

I stayed in St. Mary’s shelter this past spring. St. Mary’s Center helped me through a rough time. I had not received payment for my work and lost my apartment. I feared I would have to sleep on the streets. I was a wreck.

So many people are at risk of becoming homeless, even people who are employed. I now feel connected to people who are homeless. All are worthy of being seen with respect and offered help. I am aware that perhaps half of the work force may be two weeks from homelessness.

I took photos for the documenting homeless project. I saw this woman who lives under the freeway. I felt for her. I could have been out there like her. I spoke with her. She was so happy to have her photo taken. She didn’t know anyone cared. She had accepted her situation and adapted. She made the best of what she had and had not given up. Her positive attitude appeared on a sign on her cart.

People who are homeless are not giving up. They can survive sleeping outside. However, poverty and depression are stressful, and stress can kill. I learned as I went through being homeless that no matter what happens, I am a warrior and a survivor. Most people do adapt to their situation and survive.

I’ve learned about Compassion. When I was homeless, I was going through rough, raw stuff. People said things to me that felt hurtful. I learned that no matter what a person is going through, it’s most important not to look down on anyone. It matters to offer encouragement, to tell a person: “Don’t give up. Life is not over. You can make life better.”

I learned not to wear my feelings on my sleeve and to continually focus on changing my life. I’m wiser now, and am taking better care of myself and my health. I am now employed as a manager of a restaurant and a construction business. I’ve appreciated the help of St. Mary’s Center and Second Opportunity Christian Center.

People who are homeless need help. There are many services in our community that assist with housing, food, health care and employment. These programs motivate people to make real changes in their lives. Times are rough, and these services need more funding, not cuts.

In closing, I give thanks to God. God brought me through, and will help all who trust and believe.


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