by Terry Messman

A giant puppet of Gandhi symbolizes the spirit of nonviolence and justice at this Health and Justice Fair 2005 held at St. Mary's Center in Oakland.

A giant puppet of Gandhi symbolizes the spirit of nonviolence and justice at this Health and Justice Fair 2005 held at St. Mary's Center in Oakland.

Downtown Oakland has the highest percentage of seniors in poverty of any urban area in California. Many of those seniors are homeless. On any given night, elderly citizens make up 17 percent of Oakland’s homeless populace.

St. Mary’s Center in downtown Oakland is providing life-saving shelter and life-enriching services, recovery programs and housing referrals to poor and homeless seniors at a time when they are threatened as never before by a staggering array of cutbacks in food programs, housing assistance, and health care. Essential services are being slashed simultaneously at local, state and federal levels.

This is one of the most desperate times in recent history for seniors living in poverty. The Bush Administration has initiated massive funding cutbacks in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, imperiling the nation’s public housing and Section 8 programs. For decades, Section 8 subsidies and public housing have been a crucial lifeline that have kept impoverished seniors from ending up on the streets. Now, the very foundations of our nation’s federal housing are being eroded by President Bush’s reckless assault on HUD’s budget. Nothing is to be spared from the brutal budget axe: even housing programs for elderly people and the disabled have been cut over the last two years.

Also, due to state and county budget cuts, community health clinics have been closed in Alameda County, and some meal programs for the poor have been reduced or eliminated. Republicans continue to try to cut food stamps, and prescription drug prices continue to soar.
Another ominous storm cloud is on the horizon. The Bush Administration has joined forces with Wall Street investment firms to lobby for the privatization of Social Security. Many groups serving homeless seniors warn that this reckless gamble could reduce benefits in old age, increase the age of retirement, and weaken the safety net that is supposed to prevent seniors and disabled persons from falling into abject poverty.

Daily acts of compassion

That is why the work of St. Mary’s Center is so essential, and so inspiring. Their daily acts of compassion are a countersign to a society that has become inhumane. While President Bush jeopardizes housing for the elderly and food stamps that homeless seniors need to survive, the people at St. Mary’s step in as best they can to provide the food and lifeline services so needed to sustain the safety net locally.

St. Mary’s provides the only shelter specifically for seniors in Alameda County. It also provides health care, housing referrals, hot meals, bags of groceries, mental health referrals and an exemplary drug and alcohol recovery program called Recovery 55. These and other vital support services help make up for the disastrous shortfall of these services at the federal level.

St. Mary’s also builds community and creates a warm sense of friendship and belonging that makes life worth living and directly contributes to longevity and happiness. This work of creating community and a circle of friendship is an act of defiance to the heartless values of a cold, calculating society that too often neglects its elders and ignores their worth.

Advocates for Hope and Justice

Another sign of hope at St. Mary’s Center is the way it has organized the Senior Advocates for Hope and Justice. Last year, about 125 low-income seniors went to protests in Sacramento, testified about affordable housing to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, and attended nonviolent protests in San Francisco against the Iraq war. The Senior Advocates are trying to give people hope that there can be justice by lobbying, protesting and educating the community about the need for health care, food security and affordable housing.

This issue of Street Spirit includes the life stories of six homeless seniors at St. Mary, compiled by oral historian Trena Cleland. These moving stories show how fragile human survival is, and how much work St. Mary’s has done to preserve their health and well-being and improve their ability to survive. The life stories show how precious and meaningful every human life is, including the lives of those written off by society.

The most important life-saving act that St. Mary’s performs may be the way it affirms the worth and respects the dignity of homeless and impoverished seniors. This simple affirmation is literally a lifeline in a society that dehumanizes its poor and disrespects its elders.

The Wisdom Center

St. Mary’s runs a “Wisdom Center” and art programs where seniors reflect on their journeys through life, with a special focus on liberation from the captivity of addiction, despair and homelessness. Many seniors have gone through painful tragedies that would have extinguished hope in a lesser person — including imprisonment, prolonged poverty, loss of family and friends, and drug addiction.

This “wisdom work” at St. Mary’s shows that art and spirituality and reflection on life journeys can offer a radical, countercultural challenge to the inhumane values of the prevailing culture. These programs offer a healing antidote to the dehumanization of a society that discards senior citizens as though they had outlived their usefulness.

Many cultures revere their elders and seek wisdom from them, for it is the elders who have walked the longest path and have undergone the personal growth that cannot be attained except by journeying through all the way stations of life.

American culture is willfully blind to all that. We are captives of a system that worships glamour, money, youth, and conspicuous consumption. In our disposable culture, people are taught to junk their cars and computers for newer models and throw away their faddish clothes and possessions the moment they have outlived their allotted period of trendiness.

We throw away people too. We discard and isolate our elders in nursing homes, rather than honoring their life journeys and learning from their hard-won wisdom. Similarly, our society casts aside as worthless the poor and homeless, treating them as a form of urban blight that must be swept off the streets like yesterday’s newspapers. We throw away drug users by sentencing tens of thousands of them to the oblivion of the largest prison system in the world.

In such a society, what is the fate of an older person if they also are homeless or have had to battle some kind of an addiction? Old age, homelessness, substance abuse — those are three strikes in America, a society with no sympathy or patience for the human condition. It all adds up to a bondage as inescapable as a jail cell.

But what if the very people who are ignored and disowned by the rest of society turn out to have a priceless message for the rest of us? That would mean our whole culture is dead wrong about so many things. That is why I admire the inspiring work going on at St. Mary’s Center.
St. Mary’s has built an unexpected sense of community that embraces and serves the very people who have been exiled from mainstream society, and neglected by the government. St. Mary’s offers bread and roses, shelter and art programs. But what really turns our cultural expectations upside down is that St. Mary’s sets out to learn from the very people who have been ignored and discarded: homeless seniors, ex-prisoners, recovering addicts.

It’s a two-way street. The staff and volunteers at St. Mary’s give something by building a sense of community and helping out with housing and support services and recovery programs. They give homeless seniors the priceless gift of attention and respect and even reverence for the long, hard road that the elders have walked on their way to St. Mary’s doors. But, in turn, the workers of St. Mary’s are given the gift of truth and art and beauty and inspiration from the very people who have been written off by society.


Statues All Over America
by Claire J. Baker

let there be statues of migrants
and soup-kitchen workers,
steam-vent homeless families
vagabonds riding the rails,
runaway teens in the Tenderloin,
kids at orphanage windows,
wheelchaired elderly in
rest home hallways,
train porters and fry cooks,
the blind with canes or dogs,
sweatshop seamstresses,
waitresses at truck stops,
Salvation Army kettle collectors –

statues for all the taken-for-granted,
avoided, abandoned, or forgotten –
unique, historical.

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She took home with her the men who had only a few days left to live and were suffering the most, and tenderly cared for them around the clock. I am certain some of the people I was meeting were angels, whose job was to make certain no soul died alone and unloved.

My Back Pages: A Song for Miss Kay

She softly sings the soul anthem “Stand By Me.” It is a song for Miss Kay, a song for all of us. Her life, with its music and joy, followed by a downward slide into homelessness and death, tells us something deeper than words about the human condition.

My Back Pages: Kerry’s Kids, An Undying Dream

Oakland pediatrician Dr. Karen Kruger said, “Kerry’s death was so sudden and seemingly purposeless and shocking that I think there was a need for people that loved her to carry on her memory in a way that she would look down on from her cloud and be happy about.”