By Lydia Gans
[dropcap]S[/dropcap]t. Mary’s Center in Oakland held an annual memorial for homeless people on December 10, the International Day for Human Rights. It was an occasion to honor the memory of people who had died homeless on our city streets during the past year.
But more than that, it was a time to reaffirm a commitment to the fight for social change, and to grapple with the life-and-death problems homeless people have to deal with in their daily lives.
Executive Director Carol Johnson’s welcome and the blessing by Rev. Donna Allen of New Revelation Community Church expressed the love and sense of community that St. Mary’s offers to all the needy who come to its doors.
As part of the event, a special memorial was held in remembrance of Dave Ferguson, the executive director of the Open Door Mission, who died recently after serving poor and homeless people in Oakland for many years.
Frances Estrella, a longtime member of the community at St. Mary’s, described the profound impact Dave Ferguson had on his life. Estrella said his life was in some disarray when he first came to the Open Door Mission, and his description of how he developed a relationship with Ferguson was full of humor.
He recalled their lively discussions of religion, with Estrella declaring himself an atheist and Ferguson never proselytizing or preaching. Rather than playing the solemn kind of music that is usual for memorials, Estrella took up his ukelele and led the audience in a lusty singing of “We Shall Gather by the River.”
Shon Slaughter, who now succeeds Ferguson as executive director of the Open Door Mission, assured the audience that the spirit of the Mission is unchanged.
The main thrust of the memorial event focused on the crucial issues affecting the lives of poor people, culminating in Calls to Action to bring about change.
In weekly meetings throughout the year, St. Mary’s Seniors for Hope and Justice become informed on the social problems that concern them and prepare to become advocates for change. They go out and speak at organizations, civic bodies and nonviolent demonstrations about hunger, affordable housing, social justice, and other key issues that concern them. Four Senior Advocates, Sharon Snell, Diana Davis, Guitar Whitfield and Judy Aguilar, each spoke about their advocacy and organizing.
Jonathan Lopez of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) discussed the Homeless Bill of Rights Campaign. WRAP is working with other social justice organizations to prevent criminalization of homeless people.
Lopez cited information gathered from surveys of homeless people in various parts of the country about their experiences with police and law enforcement agencies. In virtually every city surveyed, the overwhelming majority of homeless respondents reported being cited and arrested for sleeping, sitting or lying, or simply loitering or hanging out. Many were harassed by police or security guards just because they “looked homeless.”
Lopez distributed a fact sheet with more detailed information on the surveys. He also issued a Call To Action by organizations and individuals in support of the Homeless Bill of Rights Campaign to pass Right to Rest legislation that will allow people to rest or sleep in public places or parked vehicles without being harassed.
Hunger was the other major social justice issue addressed at the event. Keisha Nzewi, advocacy manager at the Alameda County Community Food Bank, reported on the latest hunger study that found one in five Alameda County residents need help from the Food Bank and its member agencies to feed their families.
Even when families receive CalFresh (California’s SNAP or food stamp program), for many people it is not enough to carry them through the entire month.
Nzewi talked about the Food Bank’s campaign to undo the devastating cuts made by Congress in passing the farm bill last year. California now has the highest level of poverty in the United States. The recent cuts imposed by Congress are a terrible new burden for people throughout the state who are already struggling with a rising wave of poverty and hunger.
Nzewi explained that Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for seniors and people with disabilities come partly from the federal government and partly from the states. The first action in the campaign is to convince the governor and the legislature to increase California’s portion of the SSI benefit by $100 a month for each recipient. This would lift a million people out of poverty.
The legislature will begin its budget hearings soon, so people are being urged to join the Food Bank in speaking up on what a difference that small amount of money would make in their lives. There is more money in the California budget this year than before, and it should be utilized to help millions of people living in poverty, rather than all going to the big corporations.
Closing remarks at the memorial were made by boona cheema, retired executive director of BOSS. Articulate and inspiring as always, she spoke of her feelings about the homeless people who have died. She said, “Deep down a flame was lit, and each time the flame got bigger and that flame was the flame of action. With each death I was moved to more action.”
She recalled, “Ten years ago, there were some of us activists in a room saying we’re so sick and tired of having to continuously feel the sense of hopelessness while holding hope in our hearts, and feel this anger while holding peace in our hearts, and we started to begin the conversation that became the Western Regional Advocacy Project.”
She reminded the gathering that just as homeless people die on the streets every year, homeless children are born into poverty each year. She said, “Today I’m also going to remember the children that are born in our streets and take the little hands of those children and teach them to be warriors and have courage to rise from despair and feel the hope, the love, and the peace that’s rightly theirs.”
A basket of small stones was on a side table and people were invited to inscribe a name or message which would be placed in St. Mary’s rock garden.
To learn more about Dave Ferguson’s work at Open Door Mission, see “Dave Ferguson’s Lifelong Mission of Opening Doors” by Lydia Gans in this issue.