by Katrina Brekke-Miesner

[dropcap]H[/dropcap]omeless on the streets of Oakland, Jay Fernandez’s years as a social worker were distant. So was his dignity. Seeking a refuge from the streets — a last resort — Jay came to St. Mary’s Center in Oakland for the winter shelter.
What he found was much more. On October 17, 2012, Jay will be at the United Nations in New York City to recite his poem about a friend who died in Old Man’s Park in Oakland.
Grateful that his life took a different turn, Jay wants us to see the faces of people like Juan Gonzales who live and die on the streets, without housing or dignity.
“A Real Poem” is a heartbreaking reminder of how much was lost when Juan Gonzales died in a downtown park in Oakland. Jay Fernandez wrote:
“One December night he fell asleep
on a bench in Old Man’s Park
And never woke up again.
His beautiful heart just stopped
The streets had worked him too hard
For too long
And now he was done.
So remember:
His name was Juan Gonzales
And he died on a bench
In Old Man’s Park.”
Jay’s poem is an outcry against the inhumanity and injustices that have stilled the voices and ended the lives of too many people on the street. Yet, it goes even deeper and offers a revelation of the shared humanity that links our lives at a far deeper level than we normally understand.
In the poem’s stirring conclusion, Jay’s fallen friend Juan rises again and speaks out for all the victims of injustice. It is a stunning moment when Juan’s seemingly silenced voice overcomes death itself to declare his oneness — his soul’s solidarity — with all the nameless, faceless ones.
“Whether you’re in prison in New York
Or a detention camp in the fields
of Nebraska
I am you
Whether you’re sleeping on a square
of cardboard in Oakland
or under a grid in Philadelphia
I am you
I’m in every living pulsating cell
that hungers for justice
and the right to love.
I am you. I am you.”
Thanks to the publication of his poem in the November 2011 Street Spirit, Jay will journey with Carol Johnson, director of St. Mary’s Center, to New York City to read his work at the United Nations on October 17. After seeing Jay’s poem in Street Spirit, the Fourth World Movement invited him to recite it at the United Nations.
October 17 is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, a global gathering day to call attention to the basic needs for housing, food, healthcare, education, employment and community. This day to “Eradicate Poverty” is not only for Third World nations. It addresses the economic divide growing larger here at home.
* An African American boy born in 2001 has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in his lifetime. [Children’s Defense Fund]
* Health problems that exist quietly at other income levels — alcoholism, mental illnesses, diabetes, hypertension, physical disabilities — are more prominent on the streets. [National Healthcare for the Homeless Council]
* West Oakland residents can expect to die more than a decade before residents of the Oakland hills. One underlying reason is respiratory disease, most notably asthma. [Dr. Anthony Iton, former Director of Alameda County Public Health Dept.]
* Medical problems and bills are a leading cause of personal bankruptcy. [Health Access]
* In America, 3.5 million people are homeless — 33 percent of them are veterans. [National Coalition for the Homeless]
Seeking an alternative to our nation’s growing poverty and human rights violations, St. Mary’s Center helps people like Jay. As he writes, “With their consistent guidance and support, I’ve slowly regained my physical, mental and financial health, the basic needs of life. In the process, I’ve gained something more: the intrinsic value of all life, and consequently my own self-worth and value as a human being.”
Working locally yet thinking globally is why St. Mary’s participates in the Fourth World Movement founded  by Fr. Joseph Wresinski, a French-Polish priest, in 1957. This international movement has spread to 30 countries on five continents as others believe what Wresinski stated: “Wherever men and women are condemned to live in extreme poverty, human rights are violated. To come together to ensure that these rights be respected is the solemn duty of us all.”
For Fr. Joseph, the very poor often do not really count and are rendered invisible and voiceless by mainstream society. Whether living in developed or developing countries, they constitute the Fourth World.
Jay’s journey from the streets of Oakland to the United Nations is not just a story of a movement from despair to hope. It is a reminder that in small corners around the world, change does happen and we are invited to participate all together in dignity.

  • To read Jay Fernandez’s poem (“A Real Poem”) see it here in the November 2011 issue of Street Spirit.

[typography font=”Josefin Sans Std Light” size=”30″ size_format=”px”]“Here We Are”[/typography]
[typography font=”Josefin Sans Std Light” size=”24″ size_format=”px”]Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012[/typography]
[typography font=”Josefin Sans Std Light” size=”24″ size_format=”px”]39th Annual St. Mary’s Center Gala[/typography]
[typography font=”Josefin Sans Std Light” size=”24″ size_format=”px”]Dinner and Dancing[/typography]
[typography font=”Josefin Sans Std Light” size=”24″ size_format=”px”]Silent & Live Auction[/typography]
[typography font=”Josefin Sans Std Light” size=”17″ size_format=”px”]All proceeds from this event impact the lives of homeless and isolated elders and preschool children in Oakland.[/typography]
[typography font=”Josefin Sans Std Light” size=”17″ size_format=”px”]Please call (510) 923-9600, ext. 222
for more information[/typography]