San Francisco Church Invites Homeless to Sleep in Pews During the Day
San Francisco has been my home since 1999, and rarely if ever has a day gone by when I’ve biked down the street without seeing at least one homeless person.
There are approximately 7,539 homeless people, including youth, currently living on the streets of San Francisco, according to a count of unsheltered and sheltered persons taken on January 29, 2015.
The situation is getting worse, too. Since 2005, the homeless population has increased 7 percent.
How does a city count its homeless? There are three components to San Francisco’s homeless count: The general street count, the youth street count, and the shelter count for the night of the street count. With the support of 483 community volunteers, staff from various city departments and the San Francisco Police Department, the entire city was canvassed between the hours of 8PM and midnight on January 29, and in the weeks following the street count, an in-depth survey was administered to 1,046 unsheltered and sheltered homeless individuals of all ages.
That number is both staggering and disturbing, which is why when I first learned about what one San Francisco church is doing to serve its homeless population, I was not only moved, but also perplexed as to why other churches haven’t implemented similar programs.
In partnership with The Gubbio Project, St. Boniface in San Francisco is the only church in the country that invites the homeless to sleep in its pews during the day. They call it ‘sacred sleep’ where people can close both eyes, without fear of being harmed or robbed. It was started in 2004 as a project of the St. Boniface Neighborhood Center, which has been an independent nonprofit since 1986, and in 2008 the name changed to The Gubbio Project.
The Gubbio Project is dedicated to giving any and all people the right to rest, regardless of religious affiliation. People suffering from homelessness and poverty are welcomed into the church to sleep on a pew and use the restroom facilities Monday through Friday from 6am to 3pm (Tuesday until 1pm).
What is perplexing is the fact that St. Boniface is the only church in the country to offer such services. Think of all the indoor space that goes unused for hours each day, while so many people are left out in the cold.
As SF Gate reports, “It is believed to be the only place in America where this happens. Many churches let themselves be used as nighttime shelters, but no other lets the homeless sleep in its pews while its daytime functions go on all around, according to both the National Coalition on Homelessness and national Catholic officials.”
When guests walk into St. Boniface Church, no questions are asked, there are no sign-in sheets or intake forms to fill out, and no one is ever turned away. All are welcomed, respected and treated with dignity.
Imagine not having a safe place to rest day in and day out. According to folks at The Gubbio Project, lack of sleep is one of the most critical health issues for the homeless.
It was co-founded in 2004 by community activists Shelly Roder and Father Louis Vitale as a non-denominational project of St. Boniface Neighborhood Center in response to the increasing numbers of homeless men and women seeking refuge from the streets during the daylight hours.
I’ve actually met “Father Louis” a few times during various social justice activities. He’s what I would describe as an activist through and through–a lighthearted man with a heart of gold. When I learned that he co-founded The Gubbio Project, it was not at all surprising to me.
“This is about human decency,” Father Louis told SFGate. The article explained, “He doesn’t care if those who seek pews are high, mentally deteriorated, drunk or filthy. He says he sees only their hearts. And their exhaustion.”
Today, Gubbio welcomes an average of 200 individuals a day. Staff and trained volunteers are available during open hours to act as safety monitors, hospitality ministers and outreach workers. Not only are guests provided a safe space to sleep, meditate or pray, but they can also find referrals on where to turn for help and receive practical items such as hats, socks, blankets and toiletries.
How does St. Boniface balance the everyday needs of the church with those of The Gubbio Project, whose mission is to be in community with and to provide a sacred space and sanctuary for un-housed people in need of safe, compassionate respite during the day? It’s quite simple really. The Project uses the back two-thirds of the sanctuary, while the church uses the front third to celebrate its two daily masses.
So if it’s so simple, why is it the only church in the country with such a program? Your guess is as good as mine.
It goes without saying that homelessness is a nationwide epidemic. In the entire United States, on a single night in January 2014, 578,424 people were experiencing homelessness — meaning they were sleeping outside or in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program.
Think of the good that could be accomplished if other churches in other cities followed St. Boniface’s lead. And beyond churches, there are plenty of other institutions with space that goes unused during the day. What about them? It seems feasible that lots of places in cities a heck of a lot colder than San Francisco could start opening their doors to people with no safe place to go during daylight hours.
Beyond just asking why other churches haven’t opened their pews to homeless guests during the day, perhaps it’s worth asking how they could. This I learned from connecting with The Gubbio Project Volunteer Coordinator Jose Lopez, who explained that, “Working with people that are affected by homelessness, addiction, and mental illness is hard. There is a natural fear that everyone, including churches, have when it comes to this ministry.”
But if The Gubbio Project folks were able to conquer their fears, then perhaps other churches would be inspired to try as well.
Lopez explains what churches may be afraid of: “The fear of how working with people that are homeless will affect their established community of parishioners, the physical toll it could take on the church, and the financial burdens that can come with the church being used more.”
But St. Boniface seems to have figured out how to address these fears, so presumably other churches could benefit from these lessons. Lopez tells me:
“Not only have we seen all these concerns and many others at St. Boniface, we have addressed them and have been able to continue a successful project. How we have done this, and what it would take for others to follow this model, is to create and maintain a dialogue with the affected community; and to remember that in the end, no matter what people are struggling with, we are all brothers and sisters and need to be there for each other.”
I’m happy to report that at least one more church is already on board with this idea. The Gubbio Project’s Executive Director Laura Slattery told me that a second church in San Francisco will soon be opening its doors during the day to homeless people through The Gubbio Project, though the name of the church is not being announced until next week. To find out which church, she suggested that folks check The Gubbio Project website soon.
- Visit St. Boniface and see for yourself: As Lopez told me, ” No words can describe the sacred environment that is created at St. Boniface. All are welcome!”
- Attend The Gubbio Project event, “Blanket Statements: An Evening of Comedy with W. Kamau Bell” with reception and music by DJ Cuba and D8 on Thursday, December 3, 2015 at 7pm at Zendesk, 1019 Market St, San Francisco, CA 94103. More info here.
- Watch—interview conducted by Rose Aguilar with Volunteer Coordinator Jose Lopez:
In San Francisco, one of the wealthiest and most expensive cities in the country, 110 people without homes sleep in pews at St. Boniface Church in the Tenderloin from 6am-3pm. The nonprofit Gubbio Project began working with the church 10 years ago. They are two blocks from City Hall and serve 250-300 people per day. It’s the only church in the country that invites people without homes to sleep in the pews. They call it sacred sleep. “Here, we can sleep with both eyes closed.”If you’re free on December 3, they’re having a fundraiser. You can also donate online (links below). Today I met Jose Lopez, volunteer coordinator with the Gubbio Project.
Posted by Rose Aguilar on Wednesday, November 11, 2015
Photo Credit: Jeanette Antal