When Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church hosted a moving Memorial Service last July for a homeless woman known to all as “Mary,” none of us envisioned an "Act 2.” But that’s exactly what we got this past week as Mary’s three daughters ended their ten-year long search for their mother with a pilgrimage to Oakland’s Grand Lake Neighborhood. Their story, prominently featured in the Oakland Tribune, is helping hopefully bring renewed concern about the plight of the thousands of homeless individuals living on our streets.

This was one of several recent stories regarding homelessness in Oakland, including one other that is very specifically related to our own Grand Lake neighborhood.

In “Oakland homeless woman’s mystery revealed,” Oakland Tribune staff reporter Angela Hill reported on three Southern California sisters who came to the Lakeshore commercial district two weeks ago in search of answers as to how their mother had survived on our streets for some eight years before she died here in June.

Their journey was prompted by their discovery on the Internet of an earlier July 1 article in the Tribune by Susan McDonough, “Grand Lake neighbors mourn proud Mary,” that described a memorial service hosted by Rev. Jim Hopkins at Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church for a very quiet, unassuming woman most of us knew only as Mary.

What her daughters found was a mostly caring community of people who did what they could to help. Some of the individuals who knew Mary met with her daughters at the Grand Lake Neighborhood Center, followed by a walk up Lakeshore Avenue and later by a small, impromptu gathering at Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church.

Shelly, an employee at Peet’s Coffee, brightened when she heard that Michelle Jones was Mary’s daughter and recounted how Mary could always count on a complimentary pastry when she came in for a visit. Lisa, at George’s Cleaners, assured the daughters that others looked out for Mary as well and that “she never went hungry.”

At Lakeshore Baptist, Frances Graham, a long-time neighborhood resident described how she and her late husband had on several occasions found shelter for Mary in a local hotel, but that Mary was too proud to accept such charity for the long term.

Kathy McCarthy, a social worker at St. Mary’s Center, talked about her efforts just before Mary passed to get her either into a shelter or onto Social Security, which would have provided sufficient income for permanent, low-rent housing.

Over the years, dozens of others undoubtedly helped—or at least offered to do so.

In retrospect, Mary’s daughters concluded that she ended up in Oakland due to fond memories of raising her children here in happier times. I also suspect that Mary came and stayed because she felt relatively safe and did receive assistance from the Grand Lake community.

Although Mary’s family is devastated by her passing, their visit here did have a bitter sweet quality—blessed by a sense of closure and the comfort they can take in knowing that the last years of her life were not quite as bleak as they might have otherwise envisioned.

Other related stories give little reason for comfort

As we escorted Mary’s daughters through the parking lot under the freeway which had been her home for many years, I stopped to talk to a homeless individual who camped in Splash Pad Park before its revamping and now has established a make-shift shelter under the freeway. He is, like Mary was, extremely quiet. He keeps to himself and doesn’t, to my knowledge, cause any problems.

Unlike Mary, however, he looks the part and because of that is extremely vulnerable. Earlier that week, he was brutally attacked during the night, suffering a broken collarbone and multiple stitches and he is, at least temporarily, unable to use his right arm.

Totally unwilling to accept accommodations in a shelter (which is an almost visceral reaction amongst many in the homeless community), he had no alternative but to return here and take his chances with cold weather and the possibility his attackers would return.

The only ray of hope in this particular story is that Friday afternoon an outreach worker from the Homeless Action Center came to his encampment to determine his eligibility for Social Security, General Assistance, or Food Stamps. I have my fingers crossed that some financial assistance will be in the pipeline—perhaps enough to afford a room or at least eat more regularly.

Cancellation of next Project Homeless Connect a disappointing reversal

In a very real sense, the final story I’m reporting is the most depressing because of its impact on the entire homeless community in Oakland and Berkeley. In an email message dated March 5, Susan Shelton, the Manager of Community Housing Services for the City of Oakland, announced the cancellation of the Project Homeless Connect event scheduled for April 27. Her message said, in part:

On behalf of the City of Oakland Department of Human Services, Community Housing Services Division, I regret to announce that, due to staffing and funding constraints, the Project Homeless Connect event previously scheduled for April 27, 2007 must be postponed until Fall 2007. A funding source has not been identified to support the April event, and additional long-range planning is needed to put PHC on a firm financial and programmatic footing.

I’ve written previously about this program—most recently in “Homeless Connect touched both homeless people and volunteers” in November. Although the Oakland program has been far smaller and less organized than the original version in San Francisco, it had momentum in its favor and it was, from the very first, an extremely positive step towards addressing complex social issues.

As I see it, what makes the San Francisco program hugely successful is that Mayor Newsom made it a centerpiece of his administration and marshaled tons of support—not just from public agencies but from the private sector and community volunteers as well. That never happened in Oakland where Mayor Brown seemed totally oblivious to this effort.

I assumed, apparently without much justification, that Mayor Dellums would step into the breach and make this a key component of his efforts to make Oakland a model city. Judging by the message from Ms. Shelton, that may not be the case—at least, not yet.

The Homeless Connect Program in Oakland was definitely making a difference—giving the homeless and concerned citizens reason for hope. It’s incumbent upon our new mayor and the members of our city council to provide the financial and administrative backing that will allow Oakland’s Homeless Connect Program to thrive.