Friendship Park mourns friend and formerly homeless advocate Andre Royster

Andre Royster, a loyal advocate for Sacramento’s homeless population who died last month at 48, could never hold onto his belongings: No sooner were they given to him than he gave them away.

“He literally gave away the clothes off his back,” his mother, Lynda Daniels, said. She bought her son an endless string of jackets in elementary school as, time and again, he gave his jacket to a classmate and came home cold in a T-shirt.

His generosity didn’t run dry when he was homeless and dispossessed himself. Joe Smith of Loaves and Fishes recalled reminding Royster to hold on to the few triple XL jackets that fit his large frame, only to find them draped around someone else: “Less than an hour later, Andre’s walking around in a hoodie, and a little guy is walking around with a jacket big enough for him and his walker,” Smith said at a memorial service for Royster nearly a month after his sudden death.

Royster collapsed June 30 on Ahern and B streets while diffusing a conflict, a skill for which he was known and which he exercised often. Although the cause of death is yet to be determined, his wife, Evelyn White, says she believed it was because he gave the last of his high-blood pressure medication to a homeless person.

He’d been sheltered since last November, when a friend took him in. But he remained a regular at Loaves and Fishes’ Friendship Park, where fellow guests called him the Gentle Giant, Big Dré, and Mr. 707. He connected with people, identified problems and sought to fulfill each unfulfilled need, friends and staff members said.

“You remind me what Jesus is, bro,” said Ricardo Johnson, a guest of Friendship Park, as he took the microphone at the service and addressed Royster. “Jesus didn’t care about the material stuff. He cared about his people.”

Mourning though they were, friends and family took up the task of embodying Royster’s spirit. “I feel like we need some energy in here for Andre,” his cousin Teri Carlyle shouted, rousing the crowd to whoops and cheers.

Carlyle recounted her worry on hearing that her cousin was unsheltered. But she said a friend assured her, “Andre is good. He’s down and out by your standards, but he’s good.”

When she saw “how he was loving on you and you were loving on him,” she said, addressing the crowd of gathered friends, “I was like, ‘Okay. This is where he wanted to be. ... He was out in the community doing the work.’”

Galvanized by grief, friends and family have resolved to continue his work: Advocating for the rights of the homeless and acting with perpetual generosity.

Activist Crystal Sanchez recounted their joint struggle for housing justice at the City Hall – whose steps he used to sleep on – and before the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors. They had planned to go to Capitol Hill together the following year, ahead of the 2020 election, to fight for the rights of the homeless.

Though he was most visible in the homeless community when he interacted with people directly, Sanchez reminded the congregated of the work Royster did “beyond that, in these meetings.” As much as he sought to ensure his community’s material needs were met on a daily basis, he recognized his struggle was long-term and structural.

His wife and their son, Andre Jr., want to complete Royster’s plan to set up a nonprofit group called Hopes and Wishes. Les Wainstott, a homeless person, expressed his desire to set up an organization to carry forth Royster’s legacy. “I won’t stop until I can get indoors, and bring people indoors with me,” he said.

“We have to hold ourselves accountable and make sure we take care of each other,” Johnson said.

Chosen families

Royster was born in 1970 to a loving, religious family in Vallejo. White recalled the kindness of her grandfather-in-law, Lewis Daniels, who regularly brought home “strays – people who didn’t have anywhere to go.” His religiosity translated into a “great giving heart,” she said.

Royster’s mother Lynda Daniels, too, was committed to generosity and justice. To this day she is the secretary of the Vallejo chapter of the NAACP and a rapid responder for immigrants’ rights groups in Vallejo.

Royster was a bright and charismatic child, according to the obituary in his funeral program, written by his youngest cousin, Octavia Racy. “As Andre grew in popularity, he also grew in stature,” Racy wrote. “During the summer of his 12th birthday he had a growth spurt and this little tree of knowledge became a giant redwood overnight!” He went to Morris Brown College in Atlanta on a full scholarship, graduating in 1994.

SAC_RCB_20190726_HOMELESSME_2 (2)
Roses are left alongside pictures of Andre Royster, a homeless advocate who was once homeless, at a memorial near B and Ahern Street on Friday, July 26, 2019 in Sacramento. RenŽe C. Byer rbyer@sacbee.com

When White met him at the turn of the century, he was mannered, smart and a slick-talker. She had no intention of falling in love, not to mention getting married – she’d been married before and was wary – but Royster, struck with love at first sight, was persuasive. Three years later, he and White were married in Monterey. They’d had a daughter, Brea, and Andre Jr. was on his way.

But he drifted apart from his family when he became unemployed in 2012. His nuclear family moved to Sacramento, where they remain. He spent a few years in Georgia with his sister before joining them in Sacramento, where, in late 2016, he became a member of Sacramento’s rising homeless population: He slept on the City Hall steps and beneath buildings on 16th and K Street.

It seemed strange that a man from a tight-knit, expansive family – several cousins drove from Vallejo for the Friendship Park memorial service – declined to draw on his support network, but his mother said Royster was, to some extent, “homeless by choice.” He’d found the work he loved in the homeless communities of Sacramento – where his slick talking smoothed heated tempers and made him friends, where his generosity was most needed and most felt.

White recalled a conversation with Royster, not long before his death, where he expressed a deep sense of purpose. “I don’t know what it is,” she remembers him saying, “but I feel everything’s in order.” Once she assuaged his concerns about her and his children – they wanted for nothing, she said – he was calm and driven. “Thanks, Ev. I just gotta do this.”

“Andre was finding his voice and he was finding it fast,” Smith said at the memorial service. People murmured in agreement. “He started the momentum. There’s a lot of loving here right now.”

Staff writer Theresa Clift contributed to this report
Related stories from Sacramento Bee

Chalay Chalermkraivuth, from Yale University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee. She reports on arts and entertainment, the LGBTQ community and social justice. She grew up in Bangkok, Thailand.