OAKLAND, Calif. - Outside, gray skies and a chill wind cast a pall over drab storefronts and modest homes in the economically struggling West Oakland neighborhood. Inside, amid warmth and fellowship, dozens of people were adding their lit candles to a circle as they remembered homeless friends who had died. In the background, a murmur of voices and an occasional tantalizing whiff that slipped past the kitchen door promised a tasty lunch to follow.
The setting was St. Mary's Center, which provides services to low-income seniors and families, and the day was Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day.
As the memorial wound to a close, Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson joined the group, reminding them that "Jesus was a homeless man," and telling them of the project he is launching to dramatize through videos, what happens to real people when basic rights like housing, food and health care are taken away.
Carson believes the project, which he calls the "Terminator Tour" after Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's film character, is a first of its kind. Sometimes people in government start seeing human beings as statistics, he told the group. Making videos and sending them to the state capitol can send a message: "When you're making this decision, look at what you are really doing."
Joining Carson were speakers who exemplified that message - more urgent than ever as the governor prepares state budget proposals expected to emphasize ever-more draconian cuts to deal with a huge and ballooning deficit.
Elliott Allen, who grew up in foster care and now serves on Alameda County's Youth Advisory Board, told how the extensive services he received enabled him to establish himself as an independent adult. After emancipation from foster care, he said, "I was homeless, I had no job and no money. Only God knows where I would be today" without the independent living skills, transitional housing and other programs.
"Society questions why crime rates, homeless rates and unemployment rates grow," Allen said. "When you have nothing to support you or help you continue your life in these circumstances, how can you become productive members of society?"
Vivian Hain, a single mother, spoke of the extreme hardship of raising her three daughters on a monthly CalWORKS welfare grant of $723, later cut to $694. Even so, she said, she graduated from college with a BA degree in public policy, but has been unable to find full-time work with benefits. "So right now I'm working part-time and in the process of trying to transition off welfare."
But Hain warned that meager as the benefits had been, in his January budget proposal Gov. Schwarzenegger is expected to try again to eliminate the CalWORKS program. "The human impact for me is to create destitution," she said. "On a day like today, for human rights and humanity itself, we are not going to accept being terminated as people."
David Fabroy, who receives Supplemental Security Income (SSI), said cuts to SSI grants and elimination of health programs including dental care, eyeglasses and others are having severe consequences for the many thousands of Californians receiving SSI benefits.
Calling the cutbacks "horrendous," Michelle Rousey, who uses a wheelchair and depends on In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) for care, said she and other recipients "are the ones that have to bear the cuts when others who are able to afford more can afford to have their taxes raised. Rousey said the governor had also tried to cut the wages of her IHSS worker. "Where is it stated that it is not a human right to have housing and other things we need?" she asked. "Something needs to happen, and our voices need to be heard."
Rousey told People's World the cutbacks will force many people who could live independently to enter institutions at a much higher financial cost to society. Hain joined Rousey in urging that taxes be raised particularly on "big corporations and people with incomes over $250,000 a year, who can afford to pay a few hundred dollars more a year to give people back their human needs," and noted that the war in Afghanistan is taking funds that are urgently needed for human services.
At the end of the day, ten new videos and more photos and written stories had begun their journey to the governor, through the Terminator Tour project.
Though California's general fund deficit has soared during the economic crisis, a Republican minority in the state legislature has been able to stymie all proposed tax increases, because a two-thirds majority is required to pass a budget or to raise taxes. These requirements are being challenged through initiatives expected to be on the ballot in 2010.
Photo: Vivian Hain speaking at Human Rights Day event.