boona cheema sits in her home in front of an altar for lives lost on the street. The altar consists of flowers, photos, and names.
cheema sits in her home in front of an altar for lives lost on the street. (Thomas Brouns)

December brought two East Bay memorials for people who have lived and died on the street. Both services were well attended by community activists, East Bay residents, advocates, and elected officials, who gathered to sing, pray, and celebrate the lives of individuals who passed in the last year as well as those who died in anonymity. Both memorials also served as a call to action: the hosts frequently called upon the attendees to put pressure on the mayor and city council to meet the basic needs of unhoused people. The services took place over zoom rather than in person due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is a solemn honor for St. Mary’s Center to co-host the annual memorial service for those who lived and died on our streets,” said Janny Castillo, Director of Community Outreach and Services at St. Mary’s Center, which hosts the annual service in Oakland. “I hear the statistics like everyone else, that homelessness shortens life, and takes lives, but reading the names aloud of those that have passed makes the consequences that much more real.”

The memorials struck a particularly somber tone this year, as death in homeless communities has skyrocketed since last January. In five Bay Area counties, there were 560 known homeless deaths in 2020, according to The Mercury News—but experts caution that the actual number is likely much higher. Only four of these deaths were due to confirmed coronavirus cases. In Alameda County, death in unhoused communities increased 40 percent during the first nine months of 2020 compared to the same period last year. In San Francisco, it rose a staggering 123 percent. Experts say this is due to overdose, old age, services becoming harder to access due to COVID-19, and the general increase of the homeless population.

The St. Mary’s Center memorial took place on December 10. On December 12, there was a service in Berkeley as well, broadcast out of People’s Park and the South Berkeley Here/There encampment.

The Berkeley memorial was hosted by the newly configured Berkeley Community Safety Coalition (BCSC)—an umbrella group comprised of dozens of longtime homeless activists and advocacy organizations such as Friends of Adeline, First They Came for the Homeless, Berkeley Copwatch, the Berkeley Outreach Coalition, People’s Park Committee and Where Do We Go, Berkeley?, and others.

“We are here to stay. We are here to keep speaking truth to power in ways that they will have no choice but to listen,” said boona cheema, who sits on the steering committee for the BCSC and is the former director of Building  Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), said at the Berkeley memorial. “We cannot just stand by and continue to watch what goes on year after year. This is not the first memorial for our brothers and sisters who have died. We have done this every year for over 30 years. Why are all of you so quiet? Why are you not joining voices with the unhoused, their advocates?” The demands discussed at the zoom services included housing for all, charging stations across the city, regular trash pickup, better maintenance for porta-potties and sanitation stations, more showers, and warming stations, amongst other things. Speakers called attention to where city governments have fallen short, failing to keep promises they have made in the past, such as creating sanctioned homeless encampments and providing permits to those who live in vehicles.

Russell Bates and Lisa Teague join the zoom memorial from People’s Park. Behind them an alter is set up with candles and flowers.
Russell Bates and Lisa Teague join the zoom memorial from People’s Park. (Thomas Brouns)

“Housing should not be based on your ability to make a certain amount of income… it should not depend on the well-being of your mind, body, or soul,” Pastor Mike McBride of The Way Christian Center said at the BCSC service. “Justice must be extended to us all, or none of us have justice.”

Both services took the time to name the unhoused people and thier advocates who are known to have died in 2020. In Berkeley, Lisa Teague and Russell Bates read out a list of names from People’s Park. Those individuals were Eddy Serafino, Attila Zagyi, Clark Sullivan, Robin McCoy Glover, Fixie, Frankie Bonner, “Uncle Mike” Smith, Gunnar Brekke, Gunner Brack, Michael Diehl, Herbert Roberts, Jason Clary, Mike Lee, Jupiter Marley, Mike Zint, Margy Wilkinson, Maria Guevera, William Stevens, and Arthur Roper. 

Teague and Bates often had to pause to compose themselves. “We love these people,” Teague said during one tearful pause. 

At the St. Mary’s Center service, Castillo read a list of names as well, honoring those who are known to have died the street. These individuals were 300, Avin Looney, Adrea Fritz, Angel, Antwon, Attila Zagyi, Big Mike, Brandon “Twin” e12, Brenda Daily, Carl, Carolyn L., Clarence Walker, Clark Sullivan, Claudette Smith, Cody Runningbull, Craig Fleming, Cyndy H., Darhyl Rivers, David Anthony Johnson, Didi, Elton R., Frank Carter, Frankie Bonner, George, Gunnar Brekke, Gunner Brack, Herbert Roberts, Jacqueline B., James Leone, Janet C., Jason Clary, Jerome S., John F., Jose, Joseph Pleasant, Kendrick, Kim Coleman, Latosha, Leroy, Linda Adams, Lysa Chaney, Marcus, Margaret C., Margy Wilkinson, Maria Guevera, Mark Sparks, Marsha Hill, Mathis Ward, Jr., Mayesha, Michael “Sleepy” Comeraux, Michael Dowdy, Michael Killingbeck, Michael Smith, Michael Zint, Miguel, Mike (High Street), Mike Lee, Mitchal Gillespie, Ms. Deidra (High Street), Ms. Donna (High street), Ms. Pat (Smart & Final), Mumbles (youth), Natasha Rogers, Oscar P., Oscar Young, Patricia C., Quintin Pierce, Ralph McFerren, Regina Davis, Roy Smith, Ruben C., Ruben V., Sam “Ham” Helms, Shawn (45th Street), Spanky, Street, Sunshine, Tyrone, Uncle Mike, Vernon Andrew, William Stevens, Williams Burroughs, Yoyo, Rufus Wainwright, and Bishop Emery. 

The St. Mary’s Center memorial was hosted in honor of Mike Lee, a long-time East Bay homeless activist who died in August. 

“It is an indictment that in one of the wealthiest cities and regions in the world, that we have not figured out a way to leverage our tax dollars to house our brothers and sisters,” said McBride. “This is not a lack of charity or generosity… it is because of a lack of policy and a systemic failure of epic proportions in one of the most self-proclaimed liberal cities in the world. May we look in the mirror and repent.”