The Square
News and perspectives from Covia.

Leon Kennedy has lived and worked in Oakland, California for over 25 years and has been a resident of Oak Center Towers, a Covia Affordable Community, for seven. If you are out, about, and aware, you may just run into him on an Oakland street — where he is busy capturing on canvas the people and scenes of Bay Area life. Leon paints on “everything.” Some of his most impressive works have been captured on bed sheets he has found on the streets. Works on wood, tables and chairs, glass, and metal (even hubcaps) have been known to grace a thorough Kennedy collection. Many of the materials he works with come from the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse in Oakland. He creates his artworks with markers, paints, crayons, beads, glitter, cotton, yarn, and rope.

Leon is rated one of the top 100 self-taught artists in the country. His works are coveted by prominent Folk Art collectors everywhere. Serious collectors take huge store in the fact that Mr. Kennedy’s works appear in the Smithsonian Institute, which adds value to the ownership of a Kennedy original.

Community is a central part of Kennedy’s vision of life, as shown in his painting, “Thou Shalt Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself.” Kennedy explains that his art stems from his love for humanity, and he especially loves to paint the faces of the people that matter most to him, his close friends and family and neighbors.

“I love to see a picture of the beauty of old faces, young faces, all colors,” he says. “Everyone has their own beauty, everyone has character, and everyone goes through something. My work is based on community and family, and I love doing the faces and showing the heart and love. The heart of the community — you call it love.”

It is profoundly important for Leon Kennedy that his art serves the community. In a recent application Kennedy made for a public mural, a panelist said, “Mr. Kennedy actively builds community through his art.” His proposal was approved and the mural will be completed in 2020 at the African American Museum and Library.

“The main idea of my art is concern for people, encouraging someone else,” he said. “I love when someone loves the work, and feels touched. We’re here to serve and love and encourage one another. When I get a vision, I hope it helps someone.”

He has long had a vision as an artist. “As a child I knew that art was my vocation,” Kennedy said. Born in 1945 in Houston, Texas, he moved to the Bay Area in 1965. He lived in San Francisco’s Mission District in the 1970s and painted his first public mural in Hunter’s Point during that time. In Oakland, Kennedy began by painting on cloth, but he soon ran out of canvas, so he started painting on bed sheets and other found materials.

It seems fitting that he often finds his “canvases” on the street. “My art studio is the street,” Kennedy explained. “I paint on bed sheets that I hang on wooden fences and building walls.”

Kennedy paints nearly every day, often working on a bed sheet or a huge piece of cloth spread out on the floor of his studio apartment. He paints while kneeling, as if immersed in prayer. He explains that artistic visions constantly come to him. Living at Oak Center Towers provides him with a steady home base as well as a community from which to draw inspiration. “I love the variety of people here, I love my view of downtown,” he said. “The staff here is so supportive; anything that needs fixed is taken care of right away. I’m also inspired by the other artists here. I’d love to bring them all together so the world can see our creativity.”

Leon Kennedy will have a public mural called Oakland Faces on display at the Oakland Public Library in January. His work will be on exhibition at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center in February as a part of the Black History Month celebration.

*This article was previously published in the Fall 2019 edition of Community Matters with quotes adapted from a Street Spirit article from April 2014.

The Thanksgiving season at Covia is a time for great food, from the Support Services Nuthin’ But Sides potluck to the annual Thanksgiving meals put on by communities and Senior Resources. Two of these Thanksgiving meals, the Senior Resources San Francisco Thanksgiving dinner and the Annual Oak Center Towers’ Thanksgiving Luncheon, give a great peek into what it’s like to celebrate the holiday season at Covia.

SF Senior Resources:

On November 20th, Senior Resources San Francisco hosted its fifth annual Thanksgiving dinner – part of its monthly Senior Lunch program, usually held on the fourth Wednesday of the month in the Parish Hall of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church. With a jazz trio playing in the background, nearly 75 seniors gathered at long tables for a traditional Thanksgiving meal of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, green beans, and pumpkin pie for dessert.

Sandra, who is a regular at the senior lunch, says the service she receives is what makes this meal special. “All those other places you have to stand in line, out in the cold,” she says. After having wrist surgery, she finds carrying trays difficult. “Here, you’re indoors, you’re sitting at a table like we are, there’s nice music playing in the background, and you just sit and they serve you, instead of you carrying a big heavy tray.”

Vivian, who has been attending for the past three years, had a different experience: “At first I had trouble because I’m used to potlucks with my friends, so I wanted to help. I realized I’m supposed to sit down, so that was the hardest part.”

Amy Brokering, Director of Senior Resources in San Francisco, says that the service was a deliberate choice when the program was first started six years ago to make it feel more special for those who gather. Since its inception, the lunch has grown from fewer than 20 seniors to, at its largest, around 80 participants – with volunteers, close to 100 people. “It’s a community,” she says. “They support each other.”

Volunteer Pam agrees. As she serves in her fourth Thanksgiving for the program, she says, “The memories of all the differences we were able to produce is really beautiful. We have a core group of about five or six of us and we work really well together. We have a lot of joy in being here for these people and knowing it’s a community. It just makes us feel good.”

Three additional volunteers from Lindquist CPA joined the team to help serve the Thanksgiving meal. A vendor partner with Covia, Lindquist has been helping with the Thanksgiving senior lunch for the past three years. As a surprise at the end of the meal, the team from Lindquist presented Amy Brokering with a check for the Covia Foundation for $2,000 – the largest gift this program has received.

Oak Center Towers:

Also on November 20th, Oak Center Towers, a Covia Affordable community, hosted its 18th Annual Thanksgiving Lunch. Held in the Oak Center Towers multipurpose room, the lunch invites residents to enjoy a special holiday meal in their community. 

“It’s a much loved and appreciated, long-standing tradition that residents seem to really look forward to,” says Aliona Gibson, who joined Covia this year as Activities Coordinator at Oak Center Towers. “There was buzz for weeks before the date.”

Over 100 Oak Center Towers residents and guests took part in the annual lunch, arriving early to socialize with their family and friends before the food was served. The room was a pleasant hubbub of conversation as the group shared time together along with the Thanksgiving meal.

The multipurpose room at Oak Center Towers was decorated for the occasion with fall colors, flowers, and even featured a display with the community’s initials spelled out using water bottles. A tree with residents’ thankful wishes fashioned out of paper leaves adorned one wall, a happy reminder of the nature of the season.

Oak Center Towers’ staff and volunteers from Covia Support Services worked together to plate and serve the meal, which included holiday staples like turkey, ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, mac and cheese and green beans as well as fried rice and steamed vegetables. For dessert, there was a choice of apple pie or ambrosia salad and each resident was able to toast the season with their own glass of sparkling cider.

“It was a pleasure and fun to work alongside the Covia family to create such a wonderful experience. I felt the love and genuine care, concern and effort put forth towards making the event memorable,” Gibson noted. “I could not have asked for a better inaugural Thanksgiving at OCT.”

Over the past year, residents at Oak Center Towers have been fostering their creativity through art classes and art programs. Aliona Gibson, Activities Coordinator at Oak Center Towers, has been introducing residents to a new art project every month in addition to supporting the community’s connection with the Art with Elders program.

Art with Elders at Oak Center Towers

Art with Elders provides weekly art classes led by professional art instructors to over 450 residents in communities around the Bay Area. Their classes focus on teaching art skills such as composition and color as well as fostering community. Participants are invited to submit their artwork for the annual exhibit that showcases their hard work to the public around the Bay Area.

This year, artwork created by residents at Oak Center Towers for the Art with Elders program is featured in the 27th Annual Art with Elders Exhibit, currently on display at the Gerald Simon Auditorium at Laguna Honda Hospital through November 18th. Aliona Gibson and Oak Center Towers residents attended the exhibit’s Opening Celebration on October 27th where, Gibson notes, residents were “very proud and excited about their work being on display.”

One resident’s art was even selected to be printed onto greeting cards that could be purchased at the event. Gibson purchased one of these cards, saying that “it was invaluable to me to have such a beautiful and professional reproduction of the resident’s work.”

Beyond their work at Oak Center Towers, Art with Elders also provides classes at Lytton Gardens in Palo Alto, and Executive Director Mark Campbell and Instructor-Exhibits Manager Darcie O’Brien spoke as part of Covia’s 2019 Creative Aging Symposium, which celebrates the importance of creativity in creating a sense of self and living with purpose. The Creative Aging Symposium will return on January 29th, 2020 to explore more aspects of creative aging featuring speakers with backgrounds in eco-friendly fashion, choreography, and medicine. 

Monthly Art Projects

In addition to the Art with Elders program, Gibson has been introducing residents at Oak Center Towers to monthly art projects that allow them to try out different mediums and materials. Residents have created everything from tie-dye t-shirts and terrariums to painted flower pots and tissue flowers.

One popular event even had an edible component where residents created rainbow fruit skewers with strawberries, watermelon, cantaloupes, pineapple, green grapes, and blueberries. Gibson notes that the event was particularly popular because residents “got to take them home and some residents ate while creating.” 

Beyond the monthly art projects, there is also a weekly coloring activity where a small group of residents gather to color with gel pens, markers, and colored pencils.

Oak Center Towers’ diverse population means that not all of the residents share the same language, which can make craft projects and teaching difficult. Gibson says, “There is usually one person who speaks English who will relay what I am saying but mostly they go by pictures. I always bring examples of the craft we are doing, sometimes a prototype and sometimes pictures from the internet.” 

Between the monthly art projects, regular coloring group, and Art with Elders program, Oak Center Towers has created a number of beautiful pieces that have been displayed around the community on top of the art accepted into the Art with Elders’ exhibit.

The Art with Elders Annual Exhibit is open until November 18th at the Gerald Simon Auditorium at Laguna Honda Hospital. After November 18th, the exhibit will move to the Rincon Center in Downtown San Francisco through January 18th, 2020. Artwork from the Art with Elders exhibit is also available on their website.  

*Image of Oak Center Towers group courtesy of Art with Elders

Ruth's Table logoOn July 11th, Ruth’s Table, a program of Bethany Center Senior Housing, is celebrating its grand re-opening at a new dedicated gallery space located at 3160 21st Street, San Francisco. The opening reception from 6:00-9:00 pm launches a year-long exploration of Bauhaus through a series of exhibits.

Founded in 2009 with the support of artist Ruth Asawa, Ruth’s Table began as an arts initiative integrated into Bethany Center, an affordable senior housing community. The new building will serve as a gallery and creative learning space where people of all ages can come together to learn, connect, and create.

Jessica McCracken, Director of Ruth’s Table, says, “Ruth’s Table provides a safe, inclusive and welcoming space for the community to engage with arts, build meaningful connections and feel the uplifting joy of community. Our programs encourage personal growth and promote lifelong learning, while strengthening creativity, health, and independence to greatly enhance one’s quality of life.”

The first exhibit in the new space, Beyond the Warp and Weft, launches a year-long inaugural program of contemporary exhibitions celebrating the 100th anniversary of Bauhaus. The exhibit brings together 14 artists to illuminate the diversity of contemporary ideas of weaving and textile, highlight innovative craft thinking, and chart the future trajectory of the practice. The exhibition presents a stylistically diverse selection of works that combine hand weaving, sound, science, sculpture and site-specific installation.

Throughout the year, four exhibitions will examine the enduring impact of Bauhaus ideas on weaving and textile design, color interaction and theory, photography, and activism in the arts, with a particular emphasis on the way contemporary art practices have evolved with the innovations in materials and technology.

For more information, please visit https://www.ruthstable.org/.

In theory, Fair Housing is a straightforward concept: “At the end of the day, it’s that you don’t have special treatment for one resident over another,” says Karim Sultan, Covia’s Vice President of Affordable Housing. But in practice, it may not be as easy as it sounds.

The Fair Housing Act guarantees protection from discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability. It is enforced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which subsidizes Covia’s six Affordable Communities.

“I think a big myth is that fair housing is something that’s automatic and that you don’t have to be incredibly intentional about it. You can very easily be in violation of fair housing in two seconds if you’re not careful,” says Sultan. “You have to really be aware of it at all times and be very diligent about maintaining it.”

April is Fair Housing Month, but Covia Affordable Communities works hard to practice that intentionality in fair housing all year round. “We do an annual fair housing training with a fair housing attorney religiously every year,” Sultan reports. “But we also have periodic fair housing check-ins when we do our monthly meetings. It’s something you can’t reiterate enough. If you say it a thousand times, say it a thousand more times. Because as soon as it starts to be not present in the mind, things can happen.”

The planning for fair housing starts long before people move into a community, Sultan explains. “When we open up a wait list, we have to have a HUD approved marketing plan and tenant selection plan. And so those plans really seek to ensure that the process by which you move people into the building is fair.”

Once people move in, “you have a lease and house rules that again you have to be really diligent about because the lease is the same for everybody. Everybody follows the same house rules. So it’s really incumbent upon the site staff to make sure that they’re treating everybody fairly.”

If residents do feel there has been a violation of their rights, they can go through an appeal process. At Covia, “I haven’t had to reverse an administrator for violating fair housing up to now. It could happen. It just hasn’t happened as of yet,” says Sultan. “But I do remind them always that sometimes it’s not what you do but how you do it. Are you communicating thoroughly enough when you’re having people stick to their lease or talking to them about the violation of house rules. Are you ensuring that you’re communicating in a way where they feel like, ‘This is standard, and this is not just targeted at me’?”

Although not subject to the same federal law as the HUD-subsidized communities, Covia’s Home Match program is also attuned to the need for fair housing. Home Match, Covia’s Shared Housing program, connects homeowners with extra space with home seekers who need a place to live in the expensive Bay Area housing market. Home Match works with home owners and home seekers to create a Living Together Agreement that may include a home seeker providing services, such as shopping or pet care, in exchange for a reduction in rental costs.

Tanya Ahern, Program Director for Home Match in Fremont, previously served on a board of a Fair Housing organization and brings her experience to the table when helping to match homeowners and home seekers. “With shared housing I think the most important thing is to make sure that you don’t have identifying characteristics that go into referring people so that that way it’s based purely on their merit and their financial means to pay and it’s not based on race or gender,” says Ahern.

“I see a lot of people who have been turned away from housing because of race, because of disability status,” says Ahern. “Because Home Match prescreens, it makes people more comfortable and more open to housing with people that maybe they might not have considered before. I think it’s really helping house people who didn’t have a fair shake in the world. I think it’s a perk that it’s helping house people who face challenges due to stigma.”

For Covia Affordable Communities, fair housing is part of its legal mandate, but Sultan observes it’s not just about complying with the legal requirements. It’s about making residents feel at home. “Over time, when residents witness the rules being applied equally, it does give them confidence that ‘this is a place where I can feel safe, where I won’t be targeted because of my race, because of my sexual orientation, because of my religion.’ And that’s very, very important because a big part of home is security and being safe.”

“As long as you own and manage communities, and you house people, fair housing is something you have to be constantly aware of,” Sultan says. “It never gets old. It never gets easy. It never gets stale. It’s just something you have to be really diligent about at all times.”

Lytton Gardens in Palo Alto offers something almost unheard of in senior affordable housing: an Assisted Living option. Openings are currently available for seniors age 62 and older who meet certain financial eligibility requirements.

Housing Administrator Doris Lee says, “Affordable Housing usually only has independent living, so to have the assisted living and the nursing home on the same campus is truly unique.”

“Many people know about Lytton Gardens independent living and Webster House Healthcare Center. The assisted living is not as widely recognized. Our assisted living is more affordable than others in the area, and we want to spread the word out that we have affordable assisted living,” adds Lee.

Assisted Living allows residents to remain independent in many areas while provide support for activities of daily living, such as dressing or bathing, that may require additional support. A typical Assisted Living community can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $8,000 per month or more, far out of reach for many seniors.

At Lytton Gardens, however, the cost is far less. In fact, the maximum allowable income to qualify as determined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is currently set at $66,150 for a single person or $75,600 for a couple. Once income-qualified, residents at Lytton Gardens Assisted Living pay 30% or less of their monthly income for rent, a meal fee of $642.60, and a personal care fee of $1350. For this, residents receive three meals a day, housekeeping and laundry services, and 24-hour staff assistance. The rest of the resident’s rent is subsidized by HUD. 

Located only blocks away from downtown Palo Alto, Lytton Gardens offers not just a place to live, but a community, with many activities and special events as well as a weekly Market Day. “Having the different levels of care on one campus allows the resident to still live amongst the friends they have cultivated and in the place they have called home for so long,” says Lee. “Although the resident needs to move to a different apartment, they are still part of the Lytton Gardens community. Also having the nursing home on site has given some residents the extra motivation to be able to look out their window and see their apartment and work extra hard to be able to return to their apartment safely.”

One resident who has been living in Lytton’s Assisted Living for three years says, “I love the central location of the community, so close to all the shops and restaurants on University Ave. I love my apartment. Having maintenance crew on site is a plus. All the caregivers are great and they personalize the care.”

Lytton Gardens Assisted Living is currently accepting applications. Please contact Lytton Gardens to schedule a tour or call (650) 617-7338 to speak with the Assisted Living Manager, Anahi McKane.

Bethany Center, a Covia Affordable Community, celebrated 50 years of housing and services for seniors with a range of activities, including a gala event entitled The Art of Growing Older and the unveiling of the newly renovated Salud! mural. The celebrations also mark the completion of a two-year rehabilitation and modernization project of Bethany Center and Ruth’s Table, a gallery and community arts space.

“We honor 50 years of supportive housing and wellness programming for seniors,” says Jerry W. Brown, Senior Director of Covia Affordable Communities. “We recognize the invaluable contributions of the board and staff, community partners, artists, volunteers, and residents who have breathed life into these walls.”

Located in the heart of the Mission District, Bethany Center provides housing and services for almost 200 low-income seniors. In addition, Ruth’s Table offers artist-run workshops, after-hour events, and rotating art exhibitions open to people of all ages and abilities.

At the October 18th gala, attended by more than 400 people, California State Assemblymember David Chu presented the community with a Certificate of Recognition which read, “The California Legislature applauds your half-century of work providing affordable, compassionate housing for San Francisco Seniors, supporting them in their individual needs, and commends you in the inauguration of your new Ruth’s Table creative arts building.” The community also received a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition for the office of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. Tom Azumbrado , Regional Director for Mulitfamily West Region of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, was also in attendance.

“Bethany Center empowers our residents every day through supportive, innovative programs,” says Benson Lee, Bethany Center’s Housing Administrator. “We all share a commitment to excellence – and we’re ready to meet the challenges of our next 50 years.”

For more than 20 years, muralist Dan Fontes has helped share the story of Bethany Center Senior Housing in the Mission District of San Francisco. Fontes first created the “Salud!” mural that covers the 9-story building at 21st and Capp Street in 1997 with only one assistant. Now, he is in the midst of a full restoration, working with five other skilled artists to bring even more life to his original vision.

The idea behind the mural was to bring the inside of Bethany outside by sharing true-to-life images of some of the residents. “Unfortunately at the time I had to wrap it up a little too soon,” he says. “So this time I’ve been able to develop the characters more fully as I originally intended. Probably a lot of the neighbors won’t even be able to notice, but I would notice. There’s a few color changes here and there. We’ve brightened up their clothing so they’re not so gray. They’re just more lively, which is what I always intended: to have the seniors look lively and happy and activated and just living their fullest lives.”

Starting at 7:00 each morning, Fontes and his team – Desi Mundo, Kristi Holohan, Antoinette Johnson, Gwen Renee, and Haley Summerfield – use brushes as small as ¼ inch to apply acrylic paint over every inch of the 98 foot tall building, followed by three coats of heavy-duty anti-graffiti varnish.

“I have the dream team. These people have it all. They’re talented. They’re full of courage because you have to have courage to step out over that 9th floor at 98 to 100 feet,” says Fontes.

“We’ve gone through a lot of brushes and a lot of the human figures have now been triple-coated with new paint, so it’s as if you’re painting an entirely new mural on top of the one that’s here. I think it’s going to show.”

“People ask if that’s me in the mural,” says Elizabeth Dunlap who has lived at Bethany since before the mural was first developed. “I think they are surprised that it shows actual people that live here at Bethany.”

The mural also includes a silhouette of the steeple of the Methodist Church formerly located on the site. Bethany Center, a Covia Affordable Community, was established in the late 1960’s as a ministry of the United Methodist Church in San Francisco to provide affordable housing for low income seniors. In addition to 133 apartments, Bethany offers programs, activities, and special events through Ruth’s Table, an art and wellness space named for renowned San Francisco artist Ruth Asawa.

For former Bethany Center CEO Jerry Brown, now Senior Director of Covia Affordable Communities, the mural represents a connection to the Mission and the greater San Francisco community and illustrates the “empowerment of people of diverse backgrounds aging well with vitality in a place they call home.”

“To me that’s a really critical message: that people understand this is a senior center, these are beautiful people who live here, that it’s a diverse community that’s shared by multiple races and people from different countries and areas,” says Fontes. “It’s a positive place, it’s a beautiful place, it’s a gathering of souls. In a way, it’s a work of art.”

Bethany Center Senior Housing will unveil the completely restored mural in mid-October as it celebrates its 50th anniversary.

As Jennings Court, a Covia Affordable Community in Santa Rosa, celebrates its 10th anniversary this summer, its first residents are reflecting on their initial impressions.

“I was one of the first 8 people to move in,” says Fred Campbell. “And the day I walked into the facility, I fell in love with the structure, the ambiance.” Campbell, who had lost his business as a hairdresser in San Francisco during the AIDS crisis, had been cleaning houses in Southern California when he learned that Jennings Court was being built. “I always thought [low income housing] was bad stuff because that’s how the movies always show it,” he said. Instead, “On a scale of 1-10, I’d say my first impression was an 11.”

“It was a rural setting then,” when Jennings Court opened in 2008,  says Penni Colley. “Across the street were horses grazing around a barn. Of course, that’s not there any more, but it was so beautiful.”

Colley had been surprised there was still room in the new building when she received a letter saying there was an apartment available for her. “At my age and being low income, I didn’t think I would ever have a new apartment. You just kind of have to forget that because the chances of me having a brand new apartment were slim. When I saw how beautiful these were, I just couldn’t get over it.”

Colley explains that the apartments hadn’t filled due to the strict qualification requirements. Residents must be 62 or older and “very, very, very – three veries – low income,” she says.

“They were offering me such a sweet deal on the rent that I figured it would be a dump. And I was very pleasantly surprised to find how nice it is,” says Roger Hanelt, who had been homeless before moving into Jennings Court. “It’s been a very healing environment for me. Because I’ve gone through highs and lows and this place was definitely a rescue.”

Campbell remembers, “The day we got in, I stayed most of the time looking at the courtyard, so beautiful. Now I watch the seasons change with all of these trees outside my front door.”

Jennings Court has 54 apartments that look out on a central courtyard that contains a garden tended by the residents and a fountain donated by Spring Lake Village, another Covia community in Santa Rosa. It was built through a partnership between Covia and Burbank Housing with funding from HUD and the city of Santa Rosa. Along with housing, Jennings Court provides service coordination and programs such as a weekly Market Day and monthly visit from the Bookmobile.

Colley remembers “When we had our very first welcome party out in the patio out there, I just ran around to anyone who looked like they were a suit and said, ‘thank you, thank you, thank you.’

Before she moved in, “I remember thinking, ‘oh, well, I’ll have to let that thought go. I’m never going to have my own new place. And then God blessed me with this. And I just have a wonderful new apartment. Everything in it was new. It smelled new. There were no residual crumbs in the drawers that anybody had missed. So. Gratitude.”

“I kept telling myself how fortunate I was. I’m still poor as a church mouse but I’m not unhappy,” says Campbell. “Every time I think about Jennings Court when I’m away from it, it’s home.”