Carmen Neal (at left), Director of Food for All Ages at St. Mary’s, and Food Manager Jameisha Hood (right) prepare jambalaya for the event. David Bacon photo

Erskine Murphy, a community member of St. Mary’s, stirred people with his spirited drum playing that signaled the opening of the event. David Bacon photo

by Elena Berman

“If we want to realize the future we want for all, we must hear and heed the calls of the poor.” — Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations
At St. Mary’s Center, a community center serving underserved seniors in West Oakland, a group of community members and allies gathered on October 17 to observe the day dedicated by the United Nations to ending poverty.
Oakland is located in one of the richest counties in California, yet it is also home to the highest population of seniors living in poverty in the entire state, according to “Going Gray in the Golden State,” a publication of the Oakland Institute.
On October 17, members of St. Mary’s Center gathered to observe the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. The day was founded by All Together in Dignity (ATD) and focuses on Article 25 of the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights. Article 25 states, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of themselves and their family, including food,clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…”
The observance of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty began on October 17, 1987, when more than 100,000 people gathered in Paris, France, to honor the victims of extreme poverty. In December 1992, the United Nations General Assembly officially declared October 17 as the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty each year.
The day is now recognized around the world and focuses on hearing directly from those who have been subjected to extreme poverty. St. Mary’s Center provides a platform for community members and allies to speak out on the problems and solutions to poverty and oppression.
Carol Johnson, executive director of St. Mary’s Center, eloquently framed the purpose of the event by stating, “Poverty denies the right to food, denies the right to housing and denies the right to health care and denies the right to transportation… We are here together, just like people from all over the world to work together towards a world without discrimination.”

 The Dance Performance

Jean Toney, organizer and artist at St. Mary’s, began the event with a performance called, “Watch My Cart.” She told the gathering that the motivation for her piece came from an event that happened at St. Mary’s Center.
When a man came to the center one day and needed medical attention, Toney asked if there was anything she could help him with, and he asked her to please watch his cart. After a brief conversation with the man, it was brought to light how much a cart meant to the man and served as a touchstone to many others who carry their belongings on the street.
Toney’s performance was accompanied by a poem by Mary Rudge, the poet laureate of Alameda, with the same title, “Watch My Cart.” Statements were read about the causes of homelessness, such as high medical bills, loss of housing and the impact on one’s loss of dignity.
Then, a group of dancers provided movement that embodied the misery weighing down on a homeless person and the resurrection that occurs when one’s needs are met. The play ended with the famous Civil Rights hymn, “We Shall Overcome,” and brought the energy up in the center with the spirit of both connection and resilience.

It takes a community

“Advocating takes everyone coming together. No one can do anything by themselves. It takes a connected community.” — Peter Waschkowsky, St. Mary’s Center community member
“Decreasing of affordable housing funding and putting us out on the street and then police putting us into the jails — it’s a vicious cycle.” — Paul Boden, co-author of California Homeless Bill of Rights
Paul Boden told the community that affordable housing has decreased by $54 billion in the last 30 years and described the decimation of affordable housing through programs such as Hope VI, urban renewal and gentrification. Boden, director of Western Regional Advocacy Project, explained that WRAP advocates permanent housing for homeless people and opposes the criminalization of poor people in its “House Keys Not Handcuffs” campaign.
“It is criminal that we live in a society in which priorities are set by a government that says the health care needs, the housing needs, the income needs for people who happen to be poor are tertiary to the abundantly supported military industrial complex and the prison industrial complex and our mortgage companies,” he said.
Since our system puts human needs at the bottom of its priorities, Boden said it is crucial to organize a movement to call for basic protections for the most vulnerable members of the community, those who are homeless.
“It is not going to stop by us asking them to stop doing it to us,” he said. “It is only going to stop because we get smart enough, powerful enough and tight enough and build a movement that says social justice for all people. All people have human rights that we need to defend if we ever want to see them return.”

A Light in the Dark

A personal story of homelessness and finding the motivation to change from within was shared by Keith Arivnwine, a member of St. Mary’s. He explained how he had to get his mind right in order to focus on not being homeless.
“When I was homeless I was always hustling,” Arivnwine said. “I kept hustling all day because I didn’t have any money in my pocket.”
Keith presented his photo documentary on homelessness and described how he used to live on the streets right in the neighborhood of St. Mary’s Center.
During that tough period in his life, a man named Mr. Jones was very important to Keith Arivnwine and provided him with wise counsel and encouragement that helped him towards the path of changing his life for the better. He described Jones as a “light in the dark” for him and many other people in the community as well.
After spending a brief time in jail, Arivnwine entered the winter shelter at St. Mary’s Center and the support he found helped him make the transition to permanent housing.
One of the last photos in Arivnwine’s presentation was an image of the door to his own place. As he shared that image of his new home, he said, “Change needs to come from within and I am not the same person anymore. After all the places that I have crashed, I am so happy to have four walls to call my own.”

Let There Be Peace

“Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me, let it begin within in me, let it begin inside of me; let there be balance and health within my body.”  — Ester Ruth Parker
Ester Ruth Parker is an advocate for the fight against cancer and a student of holistic healing. Her presentation focused on her personal battle with breast cancer and how she combatted her diagnosis by dramatically changing her diet.
She said, “I realized I had to change my life and start listening to my body.”
Parker now uses her own story to help advocate and educate the community on the value of proper nutrition. She developed her own nutritional plan that was personalized and reflected her own cultural and spiritual values. She stressed the importance of writing down your goals, sticking to them and sharing your stories with others.
Parker’s testimony ended with the song “Let There be Peace on Earth,” sung by Brenda Whitfield and accompanied by Rodney Bell on the piano.

Threats to the safety net

Ecaterina “Cat” Burton, the food justice advocate with the Alameda County Community Food Bank, and Jodie Reed, from California Alliance for Retired Americans (CARA), both gave passionate talks about the importance of advocating both for yourself and the community.
Burton and Reed explained the constant threats by the federal government to cut funding and dismantle the safety net services, and the urgent need to protect food stamps and Social Security programs. Cat Burton described the devastating $40 billion dollar cut to the Farm Bill. Both Social Security and Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) are successful means of helping to lift people out of poverty.
Many members of St. Mary’s Center wore light blue in honor of Maya Angelou’s call for our “collective determination to turn the pain of the blues into the sky of unlimited possibilities.”
October 17 became a day of recognizing the importance of even the smallest victory over economic injustice. The victory is in each and all of us in the struggle towards dignity and liberation.
Elena Berman is the Hope and Justice Coordinator at St. Mary’s Center.

Jean Toney and several dancers produced a dance drama and enacted a poem, “Watch My Cart,” by poet laureate Mary Rudge. The dancers performed this work at St. Mary’s Center’s observance of the UN’s International Day for the Eradication of Poverty on October 17. Glenda Barbera photo

A Dance of Joy and Sorrow for All Who Dwell on the Streets

by Mary Rudge

A man came into the community center of St. Mary’s in Oakland, and he was very ill — a street person, with his belongings in a shopping cart. He asked for help and the Center staff saw that he needed emergency care, and called the paramedics.
Jean Toney, an organizer and artist at St. Mary’s Center, stayed by the sick man and asked him with concern, “Is there any one we can call?”
The man thought for a while and then said, “No one.”
She asked, “Is there anything else we can do?”
The paramedics arrived and the man only said to Jean: “Watch my cart. It’s all I have.”
“We will,” said Jean. They kept his cart for him at the center.
Later, Jean Toney asked me to write a performance piece she could perform with a group of dancers, honoring him. I did. It is hoped it can be performed for him and also for others — a performance which would create empathy, which would perhaps lead to action to improve the condition for all those — so many — who must live on the street.
Jean Toney is a workshop facilitator on body-mind conscious movement, and she produced the dance drama enacting my poem, “Watch My Cart.”
The poem was read at the International Day event at St. Mary’s Center by KPFA radio’s Nina Serrano, and was based on the real circumstances of this man’s life. This was only one of many such incidents happening to people who need and use the center — people whose home and belongings consist of one shopping cart and its contents.
So much sorrow, loneliness, caring and compassion are contained in those three words: “Watch my cart.” The illness of a man alone on the streets. The lonely image of one shopping cart as a man’s sole possessions. The joy when other people care and begin to help. The way that caring lessens loneliness.
The dancers who performed included Sheila Kagen, Jan Dederick, Dorothea Johnson and Marjorie Wagner. They performed a dance of empathy for all those who must dwell on the streets.


by Mary Rudge

It is my home.
In it is everything I own.
I have no one to turn to,
I need something to return to,
It’s my cart.
On the sidewalk I’m alone
I sleep beside it,
care for what’s inside it.
Nothing a thief would choose, I’m sure
yet I’m more at ease to know that it’s secure
the least thing has value to one who is poor:
dented cans,
a pair of socks — torn,
a paper with my name
that proves that I was born,
a tattered sweater, very worn,
a blanket, for those cold times
a plastic cup to hold for dimes
No place to stay, no place to sleep,
all I own is in a cart, so little to keep.
Thousands homeless in Alameda County
I walk so very far, so very tired
Tens of thousands homeless in California
not ever a job for which I can be hired —
Millions homeless in the nation
Millions more jobless in the nation
so very ill
too serious for the free clinic —
The center director said, “He can’t die here,
call the paramedics they will …”
(He pleads, I cannot pay a hospital bill)
Statistics show millions of children
without health care in the US
Millions of families without
health care
“Take him to emergency”
concerned we asked him, “What else can we do?
Anyone we can call?
Anyone at all to know about you?”
He bowed his head
and thought it through,
pondering, wondering,
and said,
“No one — my cart, is all I’ve got
what’s inside is not a lot,
but will you
Watch my cart?”
That night in my dreams
The shopping carts came,
each one had a spirit that moved it on,
all night through space,
each city, the nation,
they took on a strange configuration,
of dance until dawn —
A gigantic Queen of Carts
with tin can jewels, and newspaper cape,
and a salvage-stuff crown
led each cart to take their new shape,
the carts became the personas of the poor
rolled from all across the country —
through the White House door —
of the people, by the people,
for the people
Give me your
tired, your poor …
The wretched refuse
cast off from your shore
The lost, the tempest-tossed
to sign new orders into law
granting homes for all as legal right
with a guaranteed income, for whatever they could do,
musicians, dancers, artists, writers too,
people cleaning up the
streets and beaches,
washing all the windows
so the sun shines through
and designers made fantastic materials
making comfortable homes and the
man returned from the hospital to see
his shopping cart by his own front door,
a joyful sight —
I awoke in this light!
Oh the wheels of the shopping carts
roll and roam,
only to the stores to bring groceries home,
oh the cans inside, full of nourishing food,
and everyone home in a good neighborhood.
And the world is good.
Made right by the creator’s art
to answer the pleas of the poor
who could only turn to strangers like
me and you
to ask please
watch my cart.