Oral history by Trena Cleland
I learned to help myself by listening to other people tell their story and realizing, “I’ve got a story, too.” We walk around all the time, not knowing we got a story, so we never try to pin it down. It’s part of my sobriety now, to see the enduring wisdom in the story of my life. My story is, my wife died in 1986 and my life spiraled downhill. When I lost her, I didn’t have nobody to hold me and keep me standing strong. I didn’t have no guidance. I got into drugs and alcohol, and I became homeless in 1989. When I came to St. Mary’s, I was living in a hotel room. I was around a lot of people who were alcoholics and drug addicts, and I was one of them. I’ d go to church, then go home and put up my Bible, then go out and get drugs. When I came to St. Mary’s, I found out the truth of myself. I had been in total denial that my wife had passed, that my life had got worse, that I was an alcoholic, that I was an active drug addict. Once I realized I was an addict, I started trying to do something about the problem. My caseworker told me that she could help me find a place to live. All I had to do is do so much time in Recovery 55. I started attending meetings on March 2, 1999, and on May 15th, I got a place to stay. That was so fast, bang! I was enthused because of doing the program and being sober. The first day I didn’t go out and get drugs was the greatest day of my life. I felt so good about that. I have enough freedom now that if I want to go crosstown, uptown, or out of town, I don’t have be concerned with anybody. I can just get up and go! That’s a beautiful choice. And all of this comes from not smoking and drinking. Now I live in a nice studio apartment at Northgate Terrace for $226 a month. I’m a better person to myself and to others because I have a nice place to live. It puts me in a better mood. It gives me more incentive to treat people better . After I moved into my place, I kept coming back, kept coming back, and I’m still here, five days a week. In Recovery 55, we say what’s on our mind, we talk about anything we want. We’re problem-solvers! If you have a problem, we can solve it. We can take advice and we can take criticism. If you say something good, we’ll give you a hand. When someone gives you a pat on the back, that’s encouraging. Now I make better life choices, better decisions. I keep myself cleaner; I take care of my health better, I do everything in a better manner. I realize that health is the most important thing we have, period. I used to go to Highland Hospital for health care, and it took all day. Now, through St. Mary’s, I go to the Over Sixty Clinic, and it don’t take no time. They have really good service over there. I feel great. The first time I went to the Oakland supervisors’ chambers to speak to them about hunger and homelessness, I explained that I was a recovering substance abuser, and I intended to start voting again. We go to Sacramento and speak. We went to Holy Names School and spoke to the kids about homelessness. These things build my character. All these things help strengthen me. A few months after I arrived at St. Mary’s, they asked me to talk to a reporter from the Oakland Tribune about my life. St. Mary’s trusted me to be a representative to help other people. I seen so many people have so much faith in me, I got to have faith in myself, too! My teacher, Marilyn Barkley, who passed not long ago, was a beautiful person. She let me know what I had to do, and she didn’t waver. I got the message. The message she gave me was love from her to me. When you can see a person growing, that’s a beautiful, wonderful thing. Someone comes from a twig and can start to bloom, and comes back to their humanity. To have the humanity that I have now, I wouldn’t trade for anything. All I can say is, what took me so long?
I was born and raised in East Oakland, California. It was so quiet and peaceful here then. Now, it’s just crazy. I was living with my grown son in a motel. I’m on disability, SSI, and Social Security. I get about $810 a month. My check ran out in the middle of the month and I didn’t have any more money. My son said, “Mama, I hate to tell you this, but I can’t help you.” I went to the welfare department and a couple of other agencies, and they gave me numbers to call. I called and called, and none of them answered. Then, Stephanie at St. Mary’s answered the phone. I was boo-hooing and carrying on. “Please, please help me. I don’t want to live in the streets! I ain’t never lived in the streets in my life!” Me, live in the streets? Not me. I’m 57 years old, okay? I went straight from the motel to St. Mary’s. They gave me a bed in the shelter that very night. I said, “Oh, thank you, Jesus.” I was scared to death, but the women in the shelter took me right in, as though I’d been here before. And then a lot of the men on the men’s side talked to me friendly, too. I got to meet everybody. It’s a beautiful place here. There aren’t arguments. Everyone is wonderful and helpful. I love it, and now I’m trying to give back to St. Mary’s for all the wonderful things they’ve done for me. They put me up in the Ridge Hotel, at 15th St. and Martin Luther King in Oakland, in a big room that is quiet and lovely. They gave me a TV, a microwave, a refrigerator. It’s so quiet over there, I just love it. There are all kinds of people there, but nobody bothers anybody. We share a bathroom and a shower, but you hardly ever see anyone else on my floor. Ridge is a clean and sober environment, so they don’t have too many crazy people around there. It looks like a mansion, with high ceilings and a big lobby where the men play dominoes and cards. It’s safe, too, because after six o’ clock at night, you have to ring the buzzer to get in. Everybody knows St. Mary’s. It was $950 to move into the Ridge and I only had about $500, but the lady there said, “Since you’re from St. Mary’s, we’ll work with you on the move-in costs. Just pay a little extra each month until you pay them off.” Oh, was I happy! I was just thrilled to death. I have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, so I take lots of medicines. I have Medi-Cal now and they only pay for so many prescriptions a month, and then you have to beg to get the rest of your medicine. When I first arrived, I got to see Dr. Martin, the psychiatrist, because I was depressed. He gave me some medicine to take. And in all these years of being old, I’d never had a free bus pass. Dr. Martin signed my papers and I got a free pass, and I can ride anytime I get ready! I’m tired of paying $1.75 [laughs]. With the Hope & Justice group, Margaret gets us seniors together to go to San Francisco or Sacramento and participate in all the actions. This is all new to me. I had never done anything like that before. Last Saturday, we went to an action in San Francisco. They were reading off the names of the soldiers who had died in Iraq. We carried signs that had pictures of the servicemen. That was really nice. I saw Margaret on TV later, carrying her sign! I walk back and forth to St. Mary’s every day to visit with my friends. I get a little exercise that way. The workers and the staff come out to the courtyard and visit with us. They don’t talk down to us like we’re nothing. They just join right in with us. “How’s your day going? How are you liking it at the Ridge?” I went to the Nonviolence class they had here; I just got a certificate for attending all the classes. We learned how to control our emotions, and how to talk to people nicely; if you can’t talk to them nicely, just walk away. I can apply those things in my life. God knows who I am and what I need. He helped me when I prayed that I wouldn’t be on the street. There’s nothing I’m praying for these days. I’m happy the way I am right now. Everyone’s so friendly here; they just take you in like you’re family. They’ll help you get through anything. If you need to see a doctor, get medicine, go somewhere, get a place to live, get food, they’ll help you. We all try to do everything for each other, if we can. You need a dollar? Here, no problem. “I’ll pay you back.” That’s all right, don’t worry about it. It’s just terrific. I just love it here. St. Mary’s is a wonderful place to be. Come here anytime, you’ll meet everybody and love everybody. Just like a big old family!
I was staying in the Touraine Hotel [an SRO hotel in downtown Oakland] right down here on 16th and Clay Street when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit in 1989. They told us, “In two days you have to get out of this hotel. A nun is coming by, and she’s going to take seniors.” I was about 59 at the time. They said, “Ask her, she might take you.” Sister Liz came in and got some other guys, then she looked at me and said, “Do you want to go to a hotel, too?” The next day, she said, “You want a studio?” I said, “Yeah.” She took me around Lake Merritt to the Rose of Sharon, a place for seniors, and I’m saying, “Boy, this lady here done took all that pressure off me.” ‘Cause I had pushed the panic button: Where am I going to go? I’ve got all my stuff here. They were carrying people to shelters, and I didn’t want to be around a lot of people. They would steal my clothes, steal my TV. I didn’t want to be on the streets, so I pushed the panic button. I can handle it, but I don’t want to handle it. I didn’t know what to do. Am I going to get rid of all my clothes? I have to travel light. Anything to keep from having to go into certain areas, because I can’t stand to be scared. I’ve been scared so many times. I’m not good at handling pressure, you know what I’m saying? So I was very glad that somebody came up to help me like that, and I appreciated it very much. The Rose of Sharon was very beautiful. Like Sister Liz said, I wasn’t homeless, I was just homeless at that time. And I’m very grateful for that teaching that she gave me. I live at 620 17th Street, between Martin Luther King and Jefferson in Oakland. Those are senior apartments. I have a one-bedroom, living room, patio, kitchen, and bathroom. I thank St. Mary’s for assisting me in getting Section 8 housing. Like I said, I had applied before, but this hurried it up, because by them being there, I believe that was a consideration. Sister Liz won me over when she said, “If you get the place and you don’t have the money, I’ll loan you the money.” Now, how long had I been knowin’ Sister Liz? Less than a month and a half. That really got to me. I noticed that people would be so filthy, and she would go to them and hug them. I watched her. I said, “This lady is genuine.” I admired her. You don’t find many people like that. During my life, I had a drinking problem. I knew it. Nobody had to tell me, I knew that. I was putting it on Korea, you know, but then I stopped. I decided I’d had enough of that, so I went and got some help. I was going to A.A. at the time, over at the V.A., and Sister Liz told me, “We have a recovery group at St. Mary’s. We’d like for you to come there.” I said to myself, “Now, St. Mary’s has been kinda nice to me. You oughtta have some time for them.” So I decided to go to St. Mary’s. To help my alcoholism, I volunteered to make speeches, which I didn’t want to do, to get this monkey off my back. I had to change. I said, “I’m going to do something to stop this. I’ll take any drastic measures.” So that’s what I did: I volunteered. I said, “I’m going to turn clean around.” It was painful every time; but then, after that, it was sort of good. It was all right. So that’s why I think I was able to be more successful and I don’t have to go to Recovery 55 now, because it helped me out a lot on the inside.
I’ve been on SSI for about 31 years, but even though I get $800 a month in California, I was still homeless for two years. The rent here was real high, and I was having difficulty finding someone to rent to me because they wanted a big deposit up front. The hotels socked it to me. I’d rent there as much as I could during the month, then I was out in the cold. I had a regular place I slept, across from the welfare department. The elements started eating me up — the wind, the rain — and I was down on my luck. I was real goofy from not being able to go indoors. I was desperate. I was turning just about everywhere I could. I heard about St. Mary’s four years ago, and I’ve been here ever since [laughs]. I can’t seem to shake St. Mary’s! When Sister Mary first took me as her client, she went and got me a sleeping bag right away. She showed me where she keeps razors and combs handy by her desk. Then, she took me for a physical. I see Dr. Martin, the psychiatrist, once or twice a month. He’s got me on some medicines and says I’m doing fine. Sister Mary goes to the pharmacy and fills my prescriptions. I get Medi-Cal, so that helps. We sat down and filled out an application for the Ridge Hotel. They still wanted $900 up front, and I didn’t have $900. After our interview, I went for a personal interview, and they got hold of Sister Mary and said, “If David can pay $600, then $50 a month thereafter, we’ll let him in.” That’s what I did, until I got it paid off. I have my own room, and it’s real nice. I’ve got a microwave, a small refrigerator, a TV, and a radio. It’s about the best I’m going to find. The one-bedroom apartments and the studios are too much; they’re out of sight. I’ve changed a lot because I’m indoors. The elements were eating me up. I’m happy where I’m at. It’s a hotel, but it’s been renovated and the only people they rent to are ones who want to live there all month. It’s been going smooth. Sister Mary listens to what I have to say, and I have a lot to say. Sister Marilyn, who runs the kitchen, likes to have me around on Sunday, I know she does. They say I do immaculate volunteer work, and I appreciate that. On a regular Sunday, I and another guy set the tables for 80, and we’ve been running into 90. About 20 of ’em live by the code of bingo, so after we eat, I get the trash out, wipe down the tables, sweep the dining room, and then they sit down and play bingo. They have some neat prizes. There’s a lot of places, I guess, like St. Mary’s, and I don’t know where we’d be without ’em. The people who work here don’t receive big paychecks, yet they seem to get to really enjoy taking care of others. They give of their time, and they’re serious. They have compassion for others who need help. There’s no preaching, which I’m glad about. If you don’t want to go to the meetings, you don’t have to. If you don’t want to go to the picnics, you don’t have to. If you just want to come in the mornings to sit and drink coffee and eat doughnuts, like I do, then you can. You don’t really have to do anything, except be a senior citizen. Sister Mary gives me my spending money once a month. I even had enough money saved last year that I was going to buy the Christmas tree. My first Christmas here, we had a Christmas tree, and I helped decorate it. The second year I was here, we didn’t have no Christmas tree. So I told Sister Mary, “I’m going to save all year and we’ll get a Christmas tree.” You know the doctor, the psychiatrist? He even asked me if he could chip in some money. I said, “No, I got it covered.” And then one was donated, so I got to spend my money elsewhere. Usually, I’ve got a dollar or two that I give away every month. I give my money to people who lost their jobs, who were hard workers, who were divorced or in the military or something, and end up on the streets — those are the people I help when I can. I’ve been giving St. Mary’s five dollars every month for about eight months now, to spend on what they want to spend it on. I just donate it. I do that on a regular basis; whatever good that is, it attracts others. The sinful life looks like a lot of fun, but it’s not [laughs]. Sitting in the bars, drinking — it’s not a lot of fun. Life today is pretty lonesome, and it’s nice to be part of something like St. Mary’s.
At this time, seniors need some help. Even if this country is doing good, there’s always somebody that needs help to find a place to stay. But more so now, because you’ve got dot-com people in the condos, and people are getting put out and what-not. St. Mary’s, you can go right there and there’s no red tape. They take you, and you need that. When we go places, I talk to people about that. I’ve seen people that was old and didn’t have nowhere to go, and they found a place for them. They do it now. You have lots of people who are down and out, really in need, and if you’re the right type of person and really want to help yourself, they will help you. I’m just glad to have St. Mary’s, and I can’t see myself not helping out sometimes. I don’t like someone doing something for me all the time, and I’m not doing anything for them. That wouldn’t look right. I didn’t want to volunteer at St. Mary’s. I didn’t believe in volunteering. That’s selfish, I guess. But then, when I started, I liked it! I got enjoyment out of it. I was doing whatever they wanted me to do — errands and so on. I don’t want something for nothing, because I can take care of myself. I approve of the integration at St. Mary’s. It’s good that they’re conscious of that, that they’re fair-minded. You have to be conscious of other people. There’s more people in this pond than you! I notice that the people they hire don’t have a chip on their shoulders. They treat people who come here, like me, as their boss. It’s very smart of them to do that. They went to the Board of Supervisors, and they were the only ones to take Christmas presents! I thought that was real funny [laughs]! That’s the way to do it. I wish that St. Mary’s could be around for a lot of people. I really do. They help people to see what they want to do in life, to get their lives straightened out, to live and do happy things. Sometimes you need that little push. I just wish St. Mary’s would be able to continue to help people, because I’ve seen them help willingly. They don’t seem to have no attitude. Everything I’ve seen has been real nice. They always seem to have patience. When you get to be a certain age, you want to be where you don’t have to do nothin’. Get your life straightened out. Make some amends. Or just get in bed and don’t get up until you get ready! [laughs] These days, I clean up my little room, I take care of myself, I walk, I watch TV. I don’t drink no more, and I quit smoking, so I entertain myself. Get up and take a walk, or just do something. There’s always something to do. I need to iron this, I need to wash that. I come to St. Mary’s pretty much every other day now, just to laugh and talk with the guys, that’s all. I don’t come to the Recovery 55 meetings anymore. I think the world of St. Mary’s. It was nice that I was able to meet people like this, because they kept me on the right track. If you come around bad people, people who are not so desirable, you don’t put your hopes up as high. So St. Mary’s has always been a positive thought in my surroundings. You notice nice things when you come here.
Most of my childhood and adolescence was spent here in the Bay Area, in Oakland. I attended schools here –Westlake Junior High School and McClymonds High. I grew up with my mom down here on 20th and West in Oakland. I used to play in the bus station when I was a kid. I seen all this area change. There was no freeway then, no such thing. This was after the war, ’51, ’52, when I was about ten years old, and there was a big Catholic church right here. On Sundays we would come over and play at the bus station. Thousands of servicemen in uniform were catching those buses in and out, all day long. They would give us money or we’d come over to the church and they’d give us those little wafers that they use for Communion. We’d eat ’em like cookies. My mother commuted every day by Greyhound bus to Orinda, doing housework. She made eight bucks a day, including bus fare. That was a lot of money then. I had an Oakland Tribune paper route in downtown Oakland in the ’50s. And then my life started going in the opposite direction. I just wanted to be part of the crowd, one of the fellows, and was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I became involved with the California Youth Authority, and I spent a considerable amount of time in and out of CYA. As time went on, I started drinking pretty heavy. I used to truck drive for Lucky’s, Alpha Beta, Safeway. I had a Class 1 license, but every job I got, I lost due to alcohol. I’ve had housing, but I ended up losing it, just like jobs. Due to my alcoholism and all those years of drinking, I was kinda jumping around from shelter to shelter, detox to detox — that’s pretty much been the curse of my life, you might say. Twenty-five years, just going from shelter to shelter. When I came to St. Mary’s, I had nothing, absolutely nothing. These people have managed to get me shelter and I’m back on General Assistance, thanks to St. Mary’s. I worked for several years, but I still don’t have enough credits to draw Social Security. I’ll be 62 in August, and this was one of my primary goals when I got here, to get employment. Now, not only am I going to get employment, I’m going to have a place to stay, thanks to St. Mary’s. Things are looking up. I came here on December 11, from the Army Base. I was out there for about a month, and then I heard that St. Mary’s had opened up, so I came here and I’ve been here ever since. I’ve been here two times previously, but I wasn’t honest with myself or the program; because I was working, I had a small income, and I was still drinking. That was the problem. I didn’t want to quit drinking. Ultimately, my boss ended up firing me after seven years. I knew my firing was forthcoming. I was drinking so much, I lost my Section 8 apartment. I had hit rock bottom. I ended up back in Berkeley, and by this time, it was turning winter. I ended up at the Army Base, and through word of mouth, somebody mentioned St. Mary’s. ‘Course, I had been here twice before over the years, but I wasn’t taking the place serious, you know? You’re your own worst enemy when you drink.When I was younger, I didn’t mind sleeping in an old car or an old house, or having to get up to walk two blocks to the service station to use the bathroom. But now, it’s totally different. I’m kinda wore out and tired. One of these days they’re going to find me dead out there in the street somewhere, so I better get inside. St. Mary’s offered me the opportunity, and everything’s been coming up roses since I came here December 11th. I haven’t had a drink since. As long as I refrain from drinking, I’ll be okay. Drinking’s not as fun as it used to be. You already know what’s going to happen after you drink. Everything really gets chaotic, all out of proportion. I used to drink to get rid of my problems, right? It helped for a little while. You go to sleep and forget ’em. But chances are, when you woke up, the problem was still there, and not only that, it was probably twice as bad. I’m trying to think differently. The Recovery 55 meetings are what we’re doing right now, talking about it. There’s other people in there who can advise you, or see some of the things that you don’t see. My liver has been damaged; I’m taking special medication for that. My blood pressure is high from drinking. I have to wear patches to control it. They’re designed for people like me, because when you’re drinking, you don’t think about takin’ no damn pill. I’ve felt 100 percent better in the last few months, since I stopped drinking. I’m not chasing the bottle, or looking for the money to buy one. At St. Mary’s, all you gotta do is be sincere and follow the program. You’ d be surprised — there’s a lot of people here who can’t even do that. The guidelines are so simple, but there’s a lot of people who can’t do that. We have a morning Recovery 55 meeting from 9:30 to 11:00, and then an afternoon meeting from 4 to 5. That’s for the people in the shelter. The people who come in the morning often come from different parts of the city. Some of those old guys have been coming here for eight, ten years. We just sit there and talk about our problems, or find out what’s going on, like where’s the best place to go to get something. It’s open discussion. We speak on our addiction problem, the best way to cope with it; but for most of those guys over there, the way that they handle it is just to come to that meeting every day. In the afternoons, sometimes they’ll come up with some art or music. The meeting is designed to see who is under the influence, and who’s been doing what, for an hour. Otherwise, you could just walk in under the influence, and nobody would know it. I think they want to gather you up and talk to you, and they get to know you. They know how you are. It’s a little meeting designed to see where you’re at that afternoon. They know when you left here that morning, you weren’t under the influence; and when you come back that evening, they make little notations and reports about each one of us. The staff members have a weekly meeting, and I think what they do is, each one makes an evaluation on each of the clients. “So and so came in the other day, and he smelled like alcohol or wasn’t coherent.” And when the people in the sleeping quarters notice it too, they don’t mind giving you your walking papers. If you get put out of here, it’s only because you wanted to get put out. Otherwise, they will bend over backwards for you. My case worker is Kathy. Oh, she’s great [laughs]. Kathy’s great. I recommend St. Mary’s. It seems to open up doors for you. They’re winners. I’ve had job offers. We have a lady named Stephanie, she’s a volunteer down on Broadway. She comes in once a week, on Wednesdays, and so far she’s managed to get me a couple of jobs. She runs a program with people who are confined to wheelchairs. They need help, somebody to run their errands for them or clean up their house once a week. I’ve been working with her. There’s much more personal care here. There is love — that’s the only thing I can say. These people here, it’s just unbelievable how much care and concern they have for you. Each and every one of us. All you got to do is just show them that you have the desire and the will to do something, and they’ll pick it up and take it from there.
I was on drugs for 32 years, methamphetamine and Jack Daniels. I went full hard-core with speed, weed, and dynamite. I liked the wired feeling. I could do anything. I could ride my bike for days and then when I got tired I’d drink a bottle of Jack Daniels. I never questioned it. But I got tired of being busted all the time, doing this and that. I was in and out of jail — Santa Rita jail and Soledad prison, where I did five and a half years. It got old. When I came to St. Mary’s Center seven years ago, I had meth poisoning and sores all over me. They put me in the hospital for a month and I wasn’t expected to live. When I got out, they put me in their shelter and I went to the recovery meetings every day. I went through the Over Sixty drug and alcohol program, and I kept on and kept on and kept on, and I quit using. I don’t do nothin’ no more. I look at people, I see ’em on the street, and you can tell when they got no place to go, no place to stay, and all they care about is the drugs. But basically I got tired of doin’ all that shit. If I was out on the streets now, I’d probably be dead, you know, ’cause it’s altogether different. Now everybody loves crack cocaine, and they kill each other. I find it a much better life now. I don’t have to worry about, “I gotta go out and score; I gotta get some more shit.” I don’t do that no more. My immune system is gone, but I have a good doctor who makes sure I’m going all right, and St. Mary’s is still good to me. They send Scott, the nurse, to check up on me. Thank God for them! I went to the meetings at St. Mary’s every day, and I still go down there and see all my buddies from those days. They’ve all been through the same thing I’ve been through. At first, I thought the meetings were a bunch of bull, but by the grace of God, I’m still alive. What helped was talking with people who had gone through the same experiences I had gone through. We could all relate to the same things. All of a sudden, we just formed a big family. Nobody cared what color you were. We were all people. Color has nothin’ to do with nothin’. The meetings were great. At first I hated ’em, then I started liking ’em, because we were talking amongst each other and we’d all had basically the same experiences. We all bonded together. I had a real good counselor, real good, for six years, Marilyn Barkley. We were really tight. We did everything together. Everybody called her my mother. I’d always try to pull things over on her, and she’d bust me every time. She passed not too long ago. Now, Georgia Barnes is my counselor. She’s my second mother. St. Mary’s got me my room for me seven years ago and it’s great. The whole family is super-religious. They’re really good people. They cook for me, clean my room, and do my washing. They bring me my meals from across the street and I sit right in my room and eat ’em. I’ve never been in a place that was like this. I’ve never been in one place this long, going on seven years. I’d bounce all over the joint. I’d be on the streets, crash on friends’ couches, I’d sleep in my truck or my bike. It feels good to have my own place. I find it a much better life. I have more energy. Food tastes better; I’ve gained all kinds of weight, man. Everything is better. There’s all kinds of things you can do when you’re not on drugs, you know? I’m close to my daughter and son now. My mother is 85. She gave up on me, but now we’re close again. I call her every day. Best thing that could ever happen. I’m glad I straightened up. St. Mary’s totally turned me around and got me back to where I’m supposed to be. No drugs, no breakin’ the law, everything is just back where it’s supposed to be, and everything’s good now. Things are workin’ out.