Friday, December 08, 2006

Respect for Human Dignity

It is so important that we always remember, even in the midst of struggling with the illegal camping on the Parkway which causes crime, trash, and environmental degradation, that the unfortunate people having to find a place to sleep wherever they can are individual human beings deserving to be treated with dignity and respect.

Rich in spirit: Homeless man honored for life of warmth, generosity
By Robert D. Dávila - Bee Staff WriterPublished 12:00 am PST Friday, December 8, 2006

Homeless people and advocates gathered Thursday in Friendship Park to remember a beloved figure at Loaves & Fishes who died without legal status in the United States, but not alone or on the street.

Pedro "Pete" Espinoza, a humble man of generous spirit who offered simple kind acts that lifted the burdens of many who sleep on downtown sidewalks and in riverbank camps, died of heart disease, a Sacramento County deputy coroner said. He was 91.

"He was so kind and quiet and gentle," said Friendship Park volunteer Linda Padovan. "He always walked me to my car and looked out for me."

Staff workers found Espinoza's body Monday on the floor of a small cottage where he lived for the last seven years at Loaves & Fishes, said Sister Libby Fernandez, executive director. He was last seen alive Dec. 1, ambling through Friendship Park, where he greeted people who gather daily for a meal, showers, social services and help finding work and shelter.

Espinoza camped along the American River and slept near light-rail tracks on 12th Street when he arrived as a client at Loaves & Fishes in 1984, a year after Friendship Park opened.

Volunteers trying to help the elderly Mexican immigrant get on his feet were surprised to learn he lacked proof of legal residency. As a result, he could not claim Social Security benefits, even though he spent decades in the United States as a farmworker and married an American citizen, who died years earlier.

When a 1999 bout with tuberculosis left him too weak to stay on the streets, Espinoza became the first resident of an elderly housing program at Loaves & Fishes. The program includes two rent-free cottages for homeless seniors at the charity's compound on North C Street.

Espinoza was a quiet man of simple pleasures, friends said. He enjoyed sitting in the sun, eating pumpkin pie and listening to the radio. He was a big San Francisco Giants fan who rarely went out without a team cap and jacket that friends bought for him on a group outing to watch the Giants play in 2001.

In return for free housing, he performed in-kind services that included picking up trash and helping volunteers in Friendship Park. But his greatest gift, friends said, was a genuine sense of caring for others. At the memorial service Thursday, speakers recalled his warm smile, gentle handshake and sense of inner peace that softened the hearts of people often hardened by life on the streets.

"If you were lucky enough to be Pete's friend, you were blessed," homeless client Anthony Gonzales said. "I was blessed."

After Espinoza died, Loaves & Fishes officials were surprised to find a stack of $10 bills totaling $1,500 in his belongings, Fernandez said. The money was from a $30 monthly stipend he received from the in-kind housing program.

"He never spent it," Fernandez said.