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placeholder November 6, 2017   •   VOL. 55, NO. 19   •   Oakland, CA
Senior Living & Resources

Brenda Stafford, 68, says God will lead her "in the right direction."
CARRIE MCCLISH/THE CATHOLIC VOICE

West Oakland center struggles
to help homeless seniors

For 15 years Timothy rode the buses at night around the East Bay because he didn't have a roof over his head.

He began riding the buses because he had grown weary of having to compete with other people who were also in the streets trying to find shelter.

"Everybody else (who was homeless) was going through the same thing," he said.

Timothy (who wouldn't give his last name) learned how to survive by working hard to stay out of trouble. But it hasn't been easy. A number of people on the streets prey on others, he said. "Some young people test you," he explained. "I'd rather have a peaceful life. I don't wish bad on anyone."

Timothy, who found that he needed to finally trust someone, eventually came to St. Mary's Center earlier this year where he was assigned a caseworker. Now that he is in transitional housing his life has changed for the better.

"It's much better than trying to sleep on a bus," he said.

"It's a hard life for an elder out there on the streets right now," said Janny Castillo, coordinator of the Seniors for Hope and Justice Program at Oakland's St. Mary's Center, a nonprofit community organization that offers programs and services for at-risk seniors and serves pre-school aged children in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

"It's hard to find a safe place to sleep," said Castillo, who has been personally and professionally connected to the unhoused population in the area for more than 15 years. "It's difficult for everybody, but when you are not feeling safe, it's real hard," Castillo said.

According to figures taken from a recent count of the homeless there are roughly between 2,700 to more than 3,000 unhoused people living in encampments around the city of Oakland. And the percentage of persons age 50 years and older who are homeless has risen, said Carol Johnson, St. Mary's executive director.

There are many reasons for the increase, starting with the growing cost of living in the East Bay over the past several years, Johnson said. An increasing number of low-income people, especially those on SSI, can't afford housing. "You can't find housing in the area for under $800 per month," she said.

At the same time, while the number of poor seniors is also growing there is not enough senior housing for the senior population. "It's not a good formula," she said.

Despite these mounting challenges St. Mary's Center, located on the site of the former St. Andrew-St. Joseph Church at Brockhurst Street and San Pablo Avenue, has continued to encourage and support this segment of the unhoused community.

The organization offers two sites to help the homeless transition from temporary to permanent housing. One of those sites, Closer to Home, on the SMC property, opened in 2008, and the other is Presentation House, at a nearby site which opened in 2015. Each of these sites accommodates up to six seniors at a time and includes individual bedrooms with shared common areas.

A Friendly Manor, a drop-in center for homeless women that also offers transitional housing for homeless women, is a more recent St. Mary's Center program.

The West Oakland center provided a lifeline to Brenda Stafford, who had been homeless for more than a year. "When I came here I really didn't know what I was going to do," she said.

Stafford, who is approaching her 68th birthday, had worked consistently for 39 years in various jobs when her son became ill and she needed to take care of him. He subsequently died of his illness.

"Now I'm trying to regain employment," she said. "I have to look after me now."

At St. Mary's Center Stafford participated in a six-week program that helped her secure a room at Presentation House. The process was not without its challenges "It was a struggle because you have a curfew and rules," she said. "And when you're an upbeat person like me, it's hard to follow rules."

Now, after a year in the program Stafford is happy and is looking forward. "It's all about a bright future," she said. "I ask God to lead and guide me. I am positive that He will take me in the right direction."

 
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