David McKinney, Homeless Activist, Dead

“The body of a man burned beyond recognition is still being examined to determine identity and cause of death after the body was found in a homeless encampment near Ashby Avenue and Interstate 80 on Wednesday night.” So read the Oakland Tribune of Friday, Dec. 13, 2002. The man was homeless. The body could not be immediately identified. His kerosene heater had somehow ignited his makeshift shelter.

The man was identified as David McKinney. He was a Bay Area activist, active especially in issues in regard to the Homeless. Homeless himself, he had finally been approved for treatment of a mental disorder. Before that could happen, with who knows what positive results, he died in this horrible way. His case makes us wonder, in our wealthy society, why are people sleeping on the streets? There are those who think the homeless “deserve” to be homeless. They are not like you and me. Knowing some details of David’s life, people who think like that may be surprised.

He has a family that mourns him; he had a degree in religion from Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. He had studied to be a teacher, attending San Francisco State. He worked as a substitute teacher in East Bay public schools, and taught as a student teacher for a while in the 1980s. He was involved with Slingshot, the Long Haul, Food not Bombs, and could be counted on to participate in protests or actions involving progressive issues.

I would like to quote from his sister Lauren’s eulogy, delivered Jan. 11, 2003 at Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge, PA. :

“My brother David was a gifted and passionate person. How ironic that with his commitment to the marginalized and dispossessed people in our society, having even written a novel about the homeless, that he became homeless himself. His own demons made him quarrelsome and disorganized, making it hard for him to give and receive love, make constructive decisions, and just live day to day. Given his disability, what a gift that he lived as long as he did, and as well as he did. He never hurt anyone, and never lost his ideals.

“The world needs more people like David. How can we receive David’s unworldliness and deep empathy into our spirits? David never blamed or labeled the powerless. When we use a label to define ourselves against others, we close off the connection, we lose compassion, we kill. Sometimes we do that to stay sane in this world, to feel separate from chaos and darkness. But the chaos and the darkness are part of us, as all great literature reminds us. We cannot undo what happened to David, but if we see the homeless, the poor, the mentally ill, the dispossessed, as fully human, then we carry on his legacy.”

A memorial service will be given in the East Bay for David and information should be available from Steve Weiss at the Homeless Action Center.