Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home...[in] the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.
When I read these words on Dec. 10, the 60th anniversary of the United Nations adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the image that immediately jumped to my mind was of an older woman, her faced scared, teeth missing, dressed in multiple layers of faded, dirty clothes sitting mutely in the rain at a bus stop bench on Shattuck Ave. in downtown Berkeley. I knew her. She called herself Rose. She died last year on Dec. 17. Since then, I’ve often seen her sitting on a bench or walking just ahead of me only to have her disappear when I get close.
I first met Rose in 1987 at a weekly free breakfast program attended by homeless folks (along with some seniors, minimum wage workers and poor students) that operated out of a local church close to my house. I knew her for 20 years. I was a witness to her life.
She was born near the California Delta, lived all her life in East Bay towns like San Jose, Oakland, Hayward, and Castro Valley. She arrived in Berkeley in 1987 at age 45. Initially undocumented (without papers) and unable to recall basic personal information like her social security number, she had minimal access to social services and no visible means of support.
For the next six years Rose was, as she put it, houseless, not homeless, in Berkeley. She mainly slept in bushes near churches. She felt safer there. During the day she would sit at bus stops or walk slowly up and down our streets sometimes talking to herself. She never begged but did accept gifts given by passers-by—hamburgers, sodas, coffee, Belgium chocolates, teddy bears, cigarettes, socks, coins, hard boiled eggs, and the rare but much coveted dollar bill. I was always touched by the generosity she inspired in others. Even homeless spare-changers would take from what they collected to buy her something to eat. As a member of what she called “the shopping cart culture,” Rose was photographed by tourists from all over the world.
Rose considered herself a “peace-loving domestic humanitarian living on toothpaste and shoe strings.” She had an enthusiasm for life and an empathy for others that the dismalness of her own condition could not diminish. While she was hurt by the rejection she received from some members of our community she was even more angered when their hostility was directed at others who she saw as weaker, slower, sicker, or more defenseless than herself.
An avid writer, she could often be found in the library where she wrote long letters (big black words on white paper) about the corruption, crime and human rights abuses she had experienced. She sent these letters to places like the United Nations, the Vatican, Amnesty International, and B’nai Brith. She mailed them using stamps purchased from money given to her on the streets.
She refused to use her given name for fear of being traced. Despite pressures from social service agencies (including the refusal of aid), she would not apply for social security disability because, as she put it, if she were judged disabled the corrupt powers could have her declared incompetent and incapable of managing her own estates.
Rose was not born homeless. Until age 46 she had been a suburban housewife living on funds from a trust. When she realized the attorney responsible for managing it was embezzling money she went to various authorities to try and get him stopped. The attorney however called her a “crazy lady.” He was believed by both the police and the courts. (Years later the attorney was discovered to have not only stolen from Rose but from over 30 other clients as well.) When she persisted in her claims, she was threatened and abused. Traumatized, she fled with almost nothing and wandered California for months before coming to Berkeley. Her fear of that lawyer remained so great that even 10 years later simply hearing his name could throw her into a catatonic trance.
In 1993 Rose managed to move into a room at a local SRO paid for in large part by HUD. Initially it provided a supportive atmosphere in which she began to blossom. After a few years, however, the hotel began to deteriorate and became, as she put it, full of “covert activities” that made it “unsafe for life.” Although Rose wanted to move, all her attempts to be “relocated” to a less “lethal environment” failed due to bureaucratic regulations, incompetent administrators and lack of available alternatives. She remained at the SRO until 2004 when she was pushed out and once again resumed living on the streets.
This time it was harder. She was 10 years older. Her health had declined. Although she now had documents, shelter stays were limited and she spent most nights outside churches terrified by visions of blood in the streets. She moved slower now, too, and often couldn’t make it to a bathroom in time. This made her feel ashamed. “There are forces,” she wrote “who want to get rid of all the old, disabled, poor who don’t fit the functioning of a stainless steel society.”
After a year she was hospitalized with pneumonia. While in intensive care, she suffered a severe stroke and received a small inheritance. Declared by the Court to be incompetent and incapable of managing her own affairs, she was sent to a nursing home with locked doors, minimal staff and cramped three-bed rooms. Whether as a result of the stroke or the psychiatric medication she was now routinely given, her mood was calmer and more subdued although her mental furniture remained unchanged.
Rose was a warm and loving person, a good friend, a bright spirit. She died on Dec. 17, 2007 following an operation for a broken hip. Rose Patterson dead at age 67. A canary in the Berkeley mine.