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CURRENT ISSUE:  October 3, 2011
VOL. 49, NO. 17   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page story
PBS series ‘Catholicism’ begins this month
39 sisters honored
for decades of service

Seniors take part in a tai chi class at St. Mary’s Center in Oakland.

At its annual gala on Oct. 8, St. Mary’s Center will celebrate the 39 religious sisters, past and present who have enriched the lives of children, families and senior citizens in West Oakland over the past seven decades.

St. Mary’s Center Gala

What: Dinner, dance, raffle and auction.

When: Oct. 8, 5:30 p.m.

Where: Greek Orthodox Cathedral, 4700 Lincoln Ave., Oakland

Tickets: $75

Reservations and information: Amy Vaughan, (510) 923-9600, ext. 222

Among items up for bid: a week in a chalet in Wengen, Switzerland; two tickets anywhere Southwest Airlines flies; lunch and sailing on the Bay for six; and two nights at the Brewery Gulch Bed & Breakfast in Mendocino.
The center traces its roots to the St. Mary’s Church at Seventh and Jefferson streets, and the social activism of Father Charles Philipps. The pastor welcomed the Sisters of Social Service to the parish, where using the relatively new order in modern-day dress and the Jane Adams Settlement House model, founded what is today’s St. Mary’s Center.

It’s now an oasis on San Pablo Avenue and Brockhurst Street in Oakland, where a preschool blossoms in one building, senior citizens gather in another for meals, and, for five months of the year, a shelter welcomes guests age 55 and older. It’s a place of meetings, counseling and hope.

The center was “reimagined” in 1973 by the Sisters of the Holy Names. It hosted one of Cesar Chavez’s early organizing efforts in Oakland.

In what was once the rectory of St. Andrew-St. Joseph Church, the professional staff — social workers and therapists — work primarily with people over the age of 55. Many of them are homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless.

The financial crisis has brought some new clients — victims of foreclosures and bankruptcy — to St. Mary’s Center.

For many of the low-income seniors, homelessness is not their only problem. Mental health services, alcohol and drug treatment and financial services are often among their needs.

The beauty of St. Mary’s Center, said its executive director, Carol Johnson, is that it brings so many services under one roof.

The center staff can assist with applying for benefits to which they may be entitled. If they are denied, the staff may be able to advocate for them at an appeal hearing.

In addition, smoking cessation classes and medicine monitoring are offered.

Jeannie Kim, who is a case manager for the senior homeless, says finding jobs for seniors who find themselves suddenly unemployed remains a challenge.

Want to volunteer?

St. Mary’s Center welcomes volunteers — individuals and parish groups — who are interested in serving low-income preschoolers, families and senior citizens in Oakland. Opportunities include preparing Sunday or shelter meals, helping in the office or making visits or phone calls to check in on homebound seniors. Contact Amy Vaughan, (510) 923-9600, ext. 222, for additional information. Monetary contributions can be mailed to St. Mary’s Center, 925 Brockhurst St., Oakland, CA 94608.
“Our seniors who have held jobs for a long time don’t have the computer skills employers seek,” she said. In addition to referring those who are interested in learning new skills to training at places such as Goodwill Industries, she said, there are those who “go back to labor-intensive jobs. When they can find them.”

One federally subsidized program, the ASSESTS Senior Employment Opportunities Program, provided 20 hours of employment a week in a community organization. That changed to 12 hours on July 1.

“That put many people’s housing at risk,” Johnson said.

Other federal cuts are taking their toll on the poor, Johnson said. SSI checks, which once exceeded $900 a month, are now $830. That benefit had been designed to bring people up to the poverty level.
“It doesn’t do that anymore,” she said.

Reduction of available housing from the federal Housing and Urban Development Department could add to a homeless senior’s wait for an apartment. That wait is now two to three years.

Among the success stories is Brenda Garrett, 56, who arrived at St. Mary’s Center’s winter shelter in 2009. Not only was she homeless, but she was recovering from a stroke. She had been a nurse’s aide in her native state Texas. “I took care of people,” she said.

St. Mary’s Center “helped me find housing,” she said. She rides the bus to the center for activities, including a women’s group.

That shelter, the only senior-specific shelter in Northern California, requires its 25 guests to make a commitment to finding permanent housing.

Breakfast and dinner are prepared by volunteers, often members of parish groups who help out during the winter months. The shelter is open December 1. Some guests will stay until it closes in April, while some will move to transitional housing.

Obstacles to finding housing include criminal history, a bad credit report and prior evictions, in addition to the lack of affordable housing.

Through its money management program, St. Mary’s Center can be the representative payee on behalf of a senior client. About 120 a year are on the program. The center handles the client’s finances, ensuring the landlord is paid first.

“Some landlords will take them if they are under money management,” Johnson said.

St. Mary’s Center is also an important source of food. It is a distribution point for the Mercy Brown Bag program, which provides 150 seniors with groceries twice a month. In addition to the Sunday afternoon dinner, with 50 to 80 guests served by volunteers, lunch is provided daily.

Despite the challenges, those involved with the center echoed their commitment to the low-income people who seek assistance in those four buildings in West Oakland.

“We all deserve in our darkest day,” said Katrina Brekke-Miesner, who is coordinating the annual fundraiser, “a place of light.”

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