The June 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Court Upholds Legal Rights of Homeless People

Hunger Rises, Food Stamps Cut

National Hunger Survey

Union Busting in El Salvador

CEO Pay Rises, Worker Pay Shrinks

CEOs Scheme to Privatize Social Security

Dee's Story: The Stigma of Being Homeless

Bush's Chronic Homeless Plan

Pepperspray and Torture

How Earth Day Was Co-opted

St. Mary's Center

Life Stories of Homeless Seniors

Hodges Jones

Jose Querdo

Jeannette Hundley

James Jermany

Ken Minor

Lynn Hoberg

Social Justice in the East Bay

100 Teachings of Gandhi

June Poetry of the Streets

Students Poetry


May 2005

February 2005






Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

St. Mary's Creates a Family for Homeless Seniors

Life Stories of Homeless Seniors

Oral History by Trena Cleland

Susan Werner of St. Mary's Center displays artwork by Jose Querdo

In the spring of 2004, the staff of St. Mary's Center in Oakland asked me to collect oral histories of several of their clients, formerly homeless men and women aged 55 and over. These elders of different races and backgrounds have survived in an often-hostile world with creativity and ingenuity, like modern-day pioneers.

But by the time they reached St. Mary's Center, age and life's vicissitudes had taken their toll. They needed help.

Each person has found new energy and renewed hope through their connection with the St. Mary's Center "family" and its spirit of high regard for all. How have these seniors changed as a result of addressing their circumstances from a holistic perspective -- emotional, physical, sociological and spiritual -- and finding fellowship with others? What could they teach the rest of us? I started the tape rolling, and they began to talk.

First, a look at the proud history of St. Mary's Center. This beloved nonprofit social service agency is housed in humble but functional quarters near 22nd and San Pablo Avenue in Oakland. Its staff and volunteers have served homeless and extremely low-income seniors in downtown and West Oakland since 1973.

They offer a holistic program that includes daily meals, help with housing, money management, recovery programs, mental health services, a link to healthcare, and support groups that incorporate music, art, and meditation. They also provide a preschool for homeless and low-income children.

Unlike more bureaucratic agencies, St. Mary's offers its services with personal attention, care, and compassion for each individual. Staff and community members also train clients in social justice advocacy and nonviolence.

I found the individual clients fascinating. Their reminiscences, like their lives, were rich and diverse. One elder had been in and out of prison for 28 years, often for bank robbery. His worldview has been utterly transformed by the attention of the caseworkers at St. Mary's. He now quotes Gandhi and is enrolled at Merritt College.

Another is a former biker, meth addict, and hell-raiser-with-a-heart-of-gold who has been nursed back to health by the staff. Another is a petite, articulate middle-class woman whose husband's extended illness and eventual death drove her into poverty and homelessness and who is now an outspoken advocate on mental health issues.

These culturally and racially diverse elders were born in the Depression era. Some grew up on farms in places like Greenville, Mississippi, and Natchitoches, Louisiana, and have idyllic memories of fishing and hunting; others came from small towns; a few were born and raised in the Bay Area in simpler, more peaceful times.

World War II and the Korean War -- and later, Vietnam -- took many of the men overseas, from which they returned to more chaotic, uncertain lives. Some married and raised families on a shoestring budget; others stayed single and spent their lives moving from city to city and job to job. Discrimination, economic hardship, and poor health dogged all of them.

Almost every client I met suffered from a mental illness or an addiction or both -- a dual diagnosis disorder. Some have struggled their whole lives with these debilitating illnesses and ended up in the criminal justice system, rather than receiving appropriate mental health or substance abuse treatment. Others have lived functional but hardscrabble existences, making ends meet with menial jobs before their lives were ravaged by depression, illness, and homelessness.

When they arrived at St. Mary's Center, the people I interviewed were either sleeping on the street or were close to it. Most first entered the St. Mary's community through its winter homeless shelter, literally a life-saver for them.

The cold reality is that the population of homeless seniors is going up and up. Sky-high rents in the Bay Area make even the most Spartan lodgings prohibitively expensive. In Oakland, 17 percent of the people who are homeless each night are senior citizens -- the highest percentage of seniors in poverty of any urban area in California.

Nonprofit housing developers are no longer able to afford building housing for people on SSI, income now referred to as "homeless income." Continual dismantling of the HUD program is a plan to make people homeless.

The profiles of seniors in this issue illustrate the spirit of care and compassion for which St. Mary's Center has become renowned. My thanks go to the courageous elders who offered their personal testimonies, and to the inspiring staff and volunteers of St. Mary's Center. They all have my deep respect for the noble paths they are on.

For more information about St. Mary's Center or to volunteer, call (510) 893-4723 or visit For more information about personal/family oral histories and memoirs, contact Trena Cleland at (510) 524-7224, <>

1515 Webster St,#303
Oakland, CA 94612Phone: (510) 238-8080, ext. 303

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