Joan, of the arc

Longtime homelessness advocate spoke softly but carried a big heart

You may not know Joan Burke’s name, but Sacramento has benefited from her work. Burke, who announced her retirement from Sacramento Loaves & Fishes after 35 years with a typically understated, four-sentence email last month, was a quietly influential advocate for those experiencing the destabilizing effects of homelessness.

The charity’s longtime director of advocacy was just that—a crusader for compassion, working behind the scenes and on the frontlines, where she absorbed the humanity too many dismiss from afar. All you had to do was stroll through Friendship Park with Burke to know she walked her gentle-but-firm talk, which is why local politicians grew visibly uncomfortable any time she took the podium to (diplomatically, it should be said) tell them how their laws against sleeping outside and asking for donations criminalized the poor.

But don’t just listen to me.

“Joan Burke’s compassionate voice for social justice will be greatly missed,” said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, which charted a shameful 75 percent rise in homeless deaths last year. “Joan was a champion of defending the civil rights of people experiencing homelessness and a strong advocate for safe, decent, affordable and accessible housing.”

Civil rights attorney Mark Merin added that Burke had a knack for being relatable in any crowd, even when she was speaking truth to power. “It will be hard to find such a well-rounded, articulate spokesperson for homeless issues to replace her,” Merin wrote in an email.

The arc of the moral universe may not be bending toward simple human decency as quickly as we would like, but Burke and those who came before and after her are a big reason it’s bending at all. Burke and her ilk are the conscience that City Hall sometimes tries to tune out. Here’s hoping she keeps speaking her conscience, even while enjoying some well-deserved R&R.