A group of Wood Street residents and advocates gather for the memorial.
A group of Wood Street residents and advocates gather for the memorial. (Zack Haber)

More than a dozen unhoused Oakland residents and housing justice advocates gathered on the afternoon of February 15 just west of Wood and 24th Streets to memorialize unhoused local residents who’ve passed away.

While the memorial specifically focused on two people, Gary Rosenquist and Benjamin Choyce Jr, attendees also honored all local unhoused residents who’ve died recently, many of whom suffered premature death due to homelessness.

“We’re here today to honor the lives of two very important people,” said housing justice activist Dayton Andrews at the memorial. “But I think it’s important to be clear that Gary and Ben were not the only people to die in the last couple of months and they won’t be the last ones to die while homeless. We’re here to honor all those that we didn’t meet as well.”

In addition to Rosenquist and Choyce, at least three other unhoused Oakland residents have died so far in 2020. While Rosenquist lived to be 74, and Choyce was 58, two other resi- dents died in their 40s, and one died in his 60s. All five people, all men, died before the average age of death for males living in Alameda county, 79.

“Housing is so important to health that those without a home die decades younger than those with a home,” wrote Seiji Hayashi in a 2016 article for The Atlantic. Hayashi is a graduate of Harvard’s School of Public Health and is currently medical director of Mary’s Center, a community health center in Washington D.C.

In an interview with the Oakland Post, Rosenquist’s wife, Martha, explained that Gary had been dealing with pneumonia and a broken bone when he passed away and that it was difficult to cope with his medical con- ditions well while homeless.

“It wouldn’t have been as intense and I think he would have still been alive,” said Martha, when the Oakland Post asked her if having stable hous- ing would have helped Gary. She then emphasized how difficult it is to live in a safe, clean way while homeless and that she and Gary had no regular access to water.

Both Gary and Martha Rosenquist were about two weeks away from moving into a permanent housing complex set aside for veterans called Embark Apartments before Gary’s passing. But now that Gary, who was a veteran, has passed, Embark Apartments has so far prevented Martha from securing housing. She claims they’ve refused to let her sign a lease even though before Gary’s death, they clarified that family members of veterans were also allowed to live in their complex.

Homelessness causes additional burdens on those who wish to care for those who are sick, and also makes mourning more difficult for those who lose loved ones. Benjamin Choyce’s daughter, Ramona, would visit and care for him as he was suffering from cancer but eventually had to stop.

“When he was alive I would leave here, go to East Oakland, be with my Dad, help him and see what he needed” said Ramona during the memorial to the crowd. She then said that her visits stopped after The City of Oakland towed her vehicle that she’d been using both to live in and for transportation in late September, 2019. After that she wasn’t able to visit anymore.

“They took me from my Dad. When he died I wasn’t there,” said Ramona.

Unhoused residents and housing justice advocates set up a garden, which they’ve called “Gary’s Garden,” that will serve as a memorial both to Gary and all unhoused people who suffer from premature death.

As the memorial observance wound down, people watered the garden
and spoke fondly of both Gary and Benjamin.

“My father was outgoing and he didn’t judge. He was fun. He loved his music,” Ramona said.

“Gary was always for the underdog. He was always helping someone else. He had a good heart,” said Martha, as a song by Prince played.

Like Benjamin, Gary was also passionate about music. He had owned
a nightclub in downtown Oakland from the 1980s to the early ’90s called The Old Warehouse Cabaret that once hosted Prince and The Rolling Stones.

“He put his heart and soul into that place. It was a beautiful nightclub,” said Martha.

This article originally appeared in the Oakland Post.

Zack Haber is a poet and journalist who lives in West Oakland.