The aroma of freshly fried chicken hung in the thick warm air of St. Mary’s Center in West Oakland, which helps low-income seniors access government benefits and provides the only winter shelter for homeless seniors in Northern California. It was the “end of the year” dinner for the shelter’s winter season, and Charles, a shelter resident, got up to present Sister Marilyn Medau, the center’s food coordinator, with a mosaic tile he had made to thank her for all the meals she’d orchestrated. “We enjoyed those lovely meals, especially the pork chops,” he said, then cracked a joked about another shelter resident who’d said that the food at St. Mary’s is so good that it made him want to stay homeless. But that warm April evening, the people gathered around the table were in fact celebrating that these formerly homeless seniors would now be moving into their own homes.
Laughter and applause filled the colorfully decorated gymnasium. The seniors sat around fold-up tables draped in pink tablecloths listening to lively jazz, chatting with their friends and reflecting on their time in the shelter. Past residents who now live in homes nearby had also returned for the celebration. They talked about what the shelter had done for them. “You might be a baby when you walk in there, but you are a full grown person when you walk out,” said Callie, a resident who was moving into her own apartment the next day.
On the sidewalk outside the gates of the center the aroma was not so lovely. The odor from fetid dumpsters choked the air, and the hot sun baked down on the oily San Pablo Avenue sidewalk where a disheveled man leaned drunkenly against the fence that protects the St. Mary’s community garden. Across the street, in the concrete park, drug users stood around or planned their next fix. Across the street is “out there,” as several shelter residents called it when describing where they used to live.
In addition to giving out groceries several times a week to low-income families, the center’s primary focus is on programs that help low-income seniors. The center has a shelter with 25 cots, but they also provide case managing services for about 350 people. The case managers provide counseling services and help their clients get access to government benefits available to disabled people like Supplemental Security Income (SSI). They also help seniors get access to health insurance programs, save money for housing and eventually move into their own living spaces.
But the center is just one node in the complex and incomplete web of aid for seniors who do not have enough money to live on. “Forget the issue of any kind of dementia, long-term chronic mental health issues, substance abuse issues—just be homeless and experience the trauma of that and then figure this out,” said Carol Johnson, the director of St. Mary’s.
The programs that St. Mary’s helps its clients get access to are for people whose income is way below the federal poverty line. The federal government currently defines the poverty line as an $11,170 yearly income for one individual. That means living off of $931 a month. But there is no adjustment made for differing circumstances such as age or disability. “Try finding an apartment or a hotel with that income,” said Johnson. “That is what we expect our aged, blind and disabled to survive on with some dignity, and it is simply not possible.”
Mollie Orshansky of the Social Security Administration invented the poverty line in the early 1960’s. She estimated that food made up about one third of a family’s monthly expenses, said Matt Beyers, an epidemiologist in the Alameda County Public Health Department, so the poverty line was defined at “three times a common shopping cart.” But in the last 50 years, food has become much cheaper. As a result, said Beyers, “Food is a lot smaller part of your spending each month, so it’s really way too low to really be the poverty line.”
Currently, the poverty line is not necessarily used as a hard and fast rule for determining who gets government benefits. For example, to qualify for food stamps, a household of one must have an income no greater than 130 percent of the poverty line. An elderly or disabled person must only have an income that equals or falls below the poverty line. To more accurately reflect the number of people living in poverty, the US Census Bureau has recently developed a “Supplemental Poverty Measure” that takes into account existing government benefits and the increased cost of food, housing, clothing and utilities. However, this measure has yet to be implemented.
For seniors, monthly expenses like heath care co-pays, food, transportation and even doing a load of laundry often add up to much more than the $931 that the poverty line stipulates is enough. “You need about $30,000 to live in dignity in our economy,” said Johnson, referring to the Elder Index produced by the UCLA Center for Health and Policy Research. The index is based on the cost of housing, food, out-of-pocket medical expenses, and transportation, and calculates the income necessary to meet basic living expenses in each California county
According to the Elder Index, as of 2006 in Alameda County there were 71,000 seniors who did not have enough money to meet their basic needs; that is half of the people in Alameda County who are 65 and over. The 2012 Elder Index has not been released but the 2010 census estimated that 14.9 percent of Oakland’s senior population lives below the poverty line, and Johnson said that things certainly haven’t gotten better.
West Oakland in particular has been financially stagnant for some time. “When people think of West Oakland, they think of poverty. Without the structures and supports, the resources to change that, it just further proves to people that this is just how life is,” said Andria Lavine, a caseworker at St. Mary’s.
Because of all the recent foreclosures, the situation in West Oakland is getting worse for seniors, Lavine said. “We are also seeing more and more seniors being foreclosed on, living in places that either they or their family members have owned to help plan for their old age,” said Lavine. The center also sees seniors who have planned to be taken care of by their children, but their children have been foreclosed on because there are no jobs, Lavine continued.
But having to send seniors to shelters can be dangerous for them, Lavine said. Seniors are “a vulnerable population to send to shelters with people of all ages, given physical vulnerabilities, health challenges, things of that nature,” she said, referring to the amount and specificity of attention they need.
A week before the center’s end of year dinner, Johnson and Katrina Brekke-Miesner, the development director at the center, and Sister Mary Nolan, the director of the Senior Homeless Program, were standing around in the center’s bustling office discussing the issue of poverty in Oakland and the work they do to alleviate it.
“We have the only winter shelter in northern California specifically for people 55 and older, and a lot of times people that are without a place to live are the most vulnerable in other shelters,” said Brekke-Miesner.
“It’s only OK for seniors to be inside and safe from December through April,” said Nolan with a wry smile.
The center’s staff worry that the situation for low-income seniors will only worsen as the Baby Boomer generation ages and the population of seniors increases. “We are on a train to nowhere. There are going to be more people that are going to be counting on Social Security, for example, and finding out it doesn’t come up to the level they need,” said Brekke-Miesner.
She worried that in today’s economy more people are at risk of financial insecurity as they age. “So, a little bit of ignorance is bliss maybe, like ‘Who are these people?’” she continued. “Our point is they have faces, they are real people, they raise families, yes they’ve gotten disconnected or they don’t have money, but we are them.”
The center tries to assist low-income seniors by helping them access government benefits. For example, the first thing they try to get for their clients who are eligible because of a disability is Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which “is the phenomenal sum of $854 a month,” said Nolan. Being on SSI automatically enrolls the recipient in MediCal, the state health insurance plan funded through Medicaid dollars. This significantly reduces co-pays for medicine, which is usually a big portion of expenses for low-income seniors
For Benny Whitfield, who was a shelter resident in 2004 and now lives nearby in the community, this means that the maximum he has to pay for each of his prescriptions is a little over $3. Still, even with these low co-pays, Whitfield comes to St. Mary’s to get groceries. “St. Mary’s fills all the gaps for me,” he said.
Sometimes the people who come to St. Mary’s need much more basic help. Shirley Cheney, a caseworker at the center, described how one of her clients didn’t even have a birth certificate when he walked in the door. “He couldn’t even get into a shelter because he had no ID,” she said. “He couldn’t read so when they asked him to sign something—‘Read this and sign this’—it would just frighten him. So he chose to just live on the streets, he had his little spot on the street where he lived. It got too cold for him, he got a little bit too aged to be able to sleep on the street.”
Over the course of two years Cheney was able to help him get his documents. “We got him the birth certificate, the Social Security card and the California ID which allowed him to tap into a program for homeless persons and got him into housing,” said Cheney.
The center also provides a spectrum of other resources like job seminars, art therapy programs, drug recovery programs and anger management classes.
Not all of the people that come to St. Mary’s are as destitute as the man without a birth certificate. Some, like Benny’s brother Ronald “Guitar” Whitfield, are just going though a difficult time. On a bright April morning, Ronald Whitfield sat on a bench in the sun of the St. Mary’s garden. His dark wire-rimmed sunglasses hid his eyes and the way he spoke was jazz cool. He was a shelter resident, about to move into his own place.
He had been traveling around the world for 14 years working as a sailor on cruise ships and military transports, he said, and he had moved back to Oakland because he wanted to spend Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s with his family. He plays guitar at the shelter events and in his retirement he hopes to get involved in the entertainment industry. Because he worked for so many years, he gets about $1,000 a month from Social Security. His wife was in a car accident and is living out of state under the care of her relatives while completing her physical therapy, he said. In order to be able to send her money every month for her treatment, Whitfield said, he is living at the shelter.
He is not disabled, so he doesn’t qualify for SSI. But he said that St. Mary’s has still helped him a lot. “They introduced me to a lot of people in the music industry, locally, and they showed me how to network, nationally and internationally,” he said.
“I’m really not expecting the government to do a hell of a lot,” his brother Benny said. “Not in my lifetime, but what I believe is that we need more people like St. Mary’s that fill in that void.”
Former residents speak about their time at the shelter with great appreciation. Bill Edwards, who had been a shelter resident several years ago, came back for this year’s celebration. “Sometimes for a guy like me, whose been around, and been in the streets, you know, love and compassion could kinda sound corny,” Edwards said as he left the gymnasium after dinner. “I was thinking that when I was sitting in there. But it’s really real, though. St. Mary’s is just an amazing place with amazing people, doing amazing things, and it’s from the heart.