Why Have Only Two U.S. Churches Opened Their Doors to the Homeless?

Last week I was riding my bicycle through the streets of San Francisco, as I do most days. It was one of those moments that happens periodically; the city was tearing down the homeless ‘camp’ in the Mission District below the highway 101 overpass made up of tents, makeshift bedding and personal belongings. As I rode by, I noticed a man, his face in his hands, sitting on the ground next to what was left of his provisional home, an image I won’t soon forget.

I’ve been bike commuting for over 15 years here, and it seems like I see more and more homeless people in San Francisco as time goes by. When I wrote last month about what one church is doing to help the homeless here —I discovered that I wasn’t imagining it. The homeless population in San Francisco is growing—7 percent since 2005, to be specific, putting the current tally at approximately 7,539 homeless people.

Last month I shared with readers about St. Boniface in San Francisco, one church that is doing something rather unique to help the homeless. It’s the only church in the country that invites the homeless to sleep in its pews during the day. Well, it WAS the only program, until now.

St. Boniface’s program, run in partnership with The Gubbio Project, is referred to as ‘sacred sleep,’ where people suffering from homelessness and poverty are welcomed into the church to sleep on a pew and use the restroom facilities during the week, even while church is in session.

When I shared the news last month, I wrote, “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.”

Well, now another San Francisco church is following in St. Boniface’s footsteps. The Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist, located in the Mission District, will open the doors of its nave and sanctuary each weekday from 6am to 10am to people living on the streets, offering them a place to rest and sleep and access to services such as restrooms and toiletries.

The Gubbio Project will be facilitating St. John’s ‘sacred sleep’ program, as it’s been doing for the past 11 years at St. Boniface Catholic Church in the Tenderloin neighborhood. Unlike at St. Boniface, where the homeless guests rest and sleep on the pews of the church, at St. John’s there are no pews, only moveable chairs, so a third party has stepped up to solve that issue.

Relief Bed® International will be donating 50 of its Relief Beds for the guests to be able to rest on. The international organization provides beds for emergency sleeping needs in disaster and refugee zones, as well as to the homeless in North America.

From the official announcement:

“The church is opening its doors now in hopes that people will have a place to be dry and get out of the expected harsh El Nińo weather for a few hours each day. The timing also coincides with the tradition of Las Posadas, a ritual re-enactment in Latino communities of Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, being turned away by many inn keepers, finally to be allowed into a manger. Additionally, the opening coincides with Pope Francis’ initiation on December 8 of a Jubilee Year of Mercy where he calls upon all of the churches to open their doors and welcome all people in.”

The Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist has a long tradition of working within the community to feed the hungry, end violence on the streets, advocate for peace and justice, ensure immigrant reform, and secure the rights of the LGBT community. So it’s no surprise that it is following St. Boniface’s lead in tending to the needs of its homeless population.

Historically, St. John’s has been known to welcome in the marginalized and provide sanctuary. In the 1980s when refugees were fleeing the civil war in El Salvador, the church welcomed them in and painted the doors of the church bright red, signifying sanctuary. When gay men were dying of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s, the church took them in as well.

Apparently the church had been searching for a way to respond to the growing number of homeless people in the Mission District, and it seems they have found one with this new partnership with The Gubbio Project, which is starting out as a six-month pilot program.

I asked Laura Slattery, Executive Director of The Gubbio Project how she feels about taking on a second church, and here’s what she had to say:

“I am thrilled that St. John’s wanted to do something to help the people in their neighborhood who are homeless. I am even more excited that they decided that partnering with us to open their beautiful worship space to them as a place of sacred shelter and sleep during the morning made sense to them. They can see the mutuality of the Project: the blessing that the new guests bring to the congregation by their very presence in the nave and the gift that a warm, safe, welcoming place can be to those who live day in and day out in the chaos of the streets.”

According to Relief Bed® International, sleep is the #3 biological need to sustain life, only bested by water and food. And yet, lack of sleep is one of the most critical health issues for the homeless.

While it’s wonderful to learn that a second church is taking an active role in the welfare of homeless guests, I still come back to this pressing question: Why aren’t more places of worship opening their doors to the homeless during the day? If it’s out of fear–fear of how will it 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– The Gubbio Project Volunteer Coordinator Jose Lopez says that St. Boniface seems to have figured out how to address those fears, so presumably other churches could benefit from those lessons.

Slattery is all for other institutions trying out some sort of sacred sleep. She told me, “I think it would be wonderful for all of the congregations that have large homeless populations outside their doors to experiment with opening their space to sacred sleep.” She says, “I am hoping that now that there are two churches in San Francisco doing this, and several others that are currently in conversation with us, that the novelty wears off and other places of worship might be able to see themselves enriched by the homeless guests presence in their sanctuaries, and also see themselves as empowered to offer what they have – a warm, welcoming space.”

As I alluded to last month, the idea of more ‘sacred sleep’ programs is not confined to only certain religious institutions. Slattery agrees: “Churches, synagogues, and mosques can and should step up, and by doing so and getting to know those who live on the streets, they humanize the problem and learn more about what is needed.”

But let’s be realistic here. Slattery makes it clear that while their ‘sacred sleep’ program may provide respite to homeless guests, it doesn’t profess to solve homelessness. “To be clear, even if every congregation in the United States opened its doors to homeless folks during the day, or even during the night, at the end of the week, those sleeping on the pews would still need homes. Lives would be saved, and healing would happen, but housing on a large scale would not.”

Her hope is that with more congregations encountering those on the streets daily within their worship space, more people will become mobilized to ask for and demand that we as a society prioritize those who are currently dying on our streets.

TAKE ACTION

  • The Gubbio Project: The Gubbio Project 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, particularly during periods of inclement weather. Visit www.thegubbioproject.org to learn more.
  • If you’re in the Bay Area, there will be a community blessing of the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist’s space (1661 15th St.) and the beds on Sunday, December 20, at the 10:15am service.
  • What do you think it will take to get more places of worship to open their doors to homeless people during the day? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Photo Credit: Jeanette Antal

154 comments

Sue H
Sue H13 days ago

Seems like churches would be offering comfort but I'm thinking that legalities for insurance coverage could be prohibitive. ?

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Jack Y
Jack Y3 months ago

thanks

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Jack Y
Jack Y3 months ago

thanks

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John J
John J3 months ago

thanks for sharing

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John J
John J3 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Peggy B.
Peggy B2 years ago

There are many churches that do a lot and there are churches that have lost the meaning of charity towards needy. Many Christians have fallen to the wayside and are bigots and selfish and hypocrites. Luckily they are not the majority.

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faith v.
faith v2 years ago

What about the city, I forget its name, which is housing it's homeless in houses deserted by underwater debtors after George W. Depressed the world in 2008?
By getting people under a roof, the city SAVES money they no longer have to pay out for emergency treatment or prison sentences for "loitering", with a permanent address people can get jobs and start supporting themselves and their children, thus closing another potential drain as homeless children tend to find school work particularly challenging if not downright impossible . . .
Florida is also starting up a housing scheme for homeless people, it can be done and it's waaaaay cheaper on taxpayer pockets (for "uncle Joe") than keeping them on the streets.

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Agnieszka Marszalek

That is why one of the functions churches serve - help out the needy and I'm glad that some are doing it.

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Dan Kinch
Dan Kinch2 years ago

In the 1990's I was part of a church community in NYC that tried to accommodate the homeless population as best it could. But the people we were seeing had needs that a non-professional volunteer staff made up of congregants couldn't meet. Churches can run soup kitchens or manage donations of clothing or food, but they don't have staff that can deal with the mentally ill or violent. As for churches opening their doors to the homeless during the day, that requires staff or volunteers--and many churches in urban areas are struggling with declining membership. One more problem--many cities have imposed their own restrictions on help for the needy. NYC under Bloomberg passed nutrition rules for food giveaways that make it impossible for churches to recycle food from restaurants and catering companies--the city mandated that all food to have nutrition labeling and salt content. Similar rules were passed about sleeping accommodations. One more thing: many churches do this already, but on the sly. They don't want to publicize their charity because they'll be overwhelmed or worse--subjected to scrutiny from neighbors who don't want 'those people' coming in all the time.

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