At the Oakland homeless memorial, people prepare to release white doves as a symbol of honor for those who died on the streets and as a sign of peace. Lydia Gans photo


by Paige Hustead

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he hardships of life on the streets have caused illness, poverty, and even premature death for many who find themselves homeless. On Dec. 8, 2011, Oakland residents gathered to remember those who have died suffering from poverty. They honored the lives lost this year by taking part in the annual Homeless Memorial at St. Mary’s Center.
A pocket of peace on San Pablo Avenue in West Oakland, St. Mary’s Center provides shelter and services for homeless and low-income senior citizens. Along with meeting basic food and housing needs, this community organization strives to be a presence in the neighborhood by advocating for the rights of impoverished elders and the necessity of affordable housing for all people, especially those on fixed incomes.
From the posters on the walls of the center to the rallies they march in, it is no secret that the staff and seniors at St. Mary’s prioritize advocacy for equal rights and access to basic needs for all.
Even the larger-than-life papier-mache sculpture of Martin Luther King in the community room clutches a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in his hand. Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, this document asserts that every human being has a right to safe housing and affordable medical care.
This event served as a memorial for those who have died on the streets this past year, as well as a rally to continue the good fight towards ending homelessness. Carol Johnson, executive director of St. Mary’s Center, delicately linked these two points in her opening address.
She said, “Housing is a human right. Everyone deserves to be housed, and to feel safe and supported by their community. Unfortunately, this is not the reality. Today we pause to remember all those who have died outside without access to the care they deserve. We remember them as we continue to fight for affordable housing and equal rights for all people.”
After Johnson’s address, senior Arthur Alexander, a local Oakland resident, led a procession from the center to St. Andrew’s Park across the street. He was followed by dozens of people armed with tambourines, drums, maracas, and other musical instruments. As the music faded, senior Gilbert Johnson stepped up on the platform in the park to share his personal tale of life on the streets.
“I had to go through homelessness twice to finally get serious about housing,” he said. “Being homeless is a danger to self. You have to be careful on these streets in Oakland, and especially as a senior. Today, we remember our stories, and the stories of those who did not make it out of homelessness alive. Being homeless is a memorial in itself; there is power in the stories of people who have gone before and died on the streets.”

After doves were released, they flew all around the courtyard at St. Mary’s Center, uplifting the spirits of those below. Lydia Gans photo

St. Mary’s staff member Susan Werner invited participants to speak the names of those they wished to remember. As each name was spoken, a small bell was chimed. The constant tinkling of the bell raised audible awareness of how many friends and family members have died suffering the harsh realities of homelessness.
Another senior in the crowd spoke about the power of saying the names aloud. He said, “Although these friends and relatives are not literally among us, when we remember their names, we keep their spirits alive and with us always.”
After the naming ceremony, Gregory Branch described his personal experience with homelessness, and challenged his community members to remember the Biblical example of Jesus. Branch reminded the gathering, “Even Jesus was homeless! Let us remember to live in light of his story and to remember his command to care for the least of these among us.”
Then, following Arthur Alexander and his saxophone, the crowd returned to the courtyard for a time of singing and more sharing. As senior Brenda Whitfield sang a beautiful song about freedom, ten white doves were released into the air as a symbol of honor for those who have died and a sign of peace to all who were present.
The doves flew back and forth around the courtyard, as if by their flight they were able to uplift the weary spirits of those who watched them fly.
Elena Berman, Hope and Justice coordinator at St. Mary’s, spoke about the dove release and its symbolic representation of the soul’s ascension after death.
She said, ‘“While our brothers and sisters may no longer be among us, we continue to honor their memories and acknowledge their impact on our lives.”
Berman said the doves were released in the spirit of peace and equality. She added, “Let these doves also serve to raise each person here to a higher consciousness. May we strive towards peace and equality within our own community so that we may unite in our pursuit of raising the collective human consciousness to the awareness that all humans were created equally and deserve basic human rights.”
Oakland was not the only city to remember those who have died homeless. On this same day, other memorial services were held throughout the Bay Area. Despite their different locations, the underlying theme at all of these memorials seemed to be a coupling of remembrance of those who had died, with renewed commitment to the pursuit of affordable housing for all.
This was an occasion to honor the lives of those who have suffered hunger, pain, loneliness, and premature deaths outside on the sidewalks. The service was moving, healing, and also inspiring in its ability to remind us of the importance of staying committed to the cause of justice.