The white perpendicular columns line both sides of St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, holding up the roof to what has become a sanctuary for San Francisco’s homeless citizens.
Beneath the resplendent stain-glass windows, orange mats line the wood floor of the Mission District church every weekday morning, providing a safe sleeping space for the city’s homeless, whose encampments have been routinely targeted by city officials, agencies and police.
And although homeless encampments continue throughout various areas of the Mission—most notably on Division Street—there are organizations that have devoted their time to finding alternative options for the homeless community in San Francisco.
One of these is the Gubbio Project, a nonprofit organization that provides temporary housing services to the homeless in the Tenderloin and the Mission. Gubbio partnered up with St. Boniface Church in the Tenderloin and more recently St. John’s, in a six-month pilot program.
“It’s all going great,” said Father Richard Smith—the vicar at St. John’s. “I can’t imagine it being better. It has truly been a marriage made in heaven.”
The pilot program was slated to end on June 30, but Gubbio and the church plan to continue their partnership, Smith said. Their objective isn’t to help solve the housing crisis in San Francisco, but provide options for the homeless community.
Last April, Mayor Ed Lee took action, announcing a citywide crackdown on all homeless encampments in San Francisco.
On April 7, SFPD Sgt. Nate Steger and officer Michael Mellone fatally shot Luis Gongora Pat, a homeless 45-year-old Mexican immigrant on Shotwell Street. Contrary to some eyewitness statements, police allege that Gongora charged at the officers while holding a knife. After the shooting, Lee echoed his concern for public safety.
“It’s not just that people do not feel safe around the camps — they aren’t safe,” Lee told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Matier and Ross. “When it comes to public safety, I’m not going to compromise with these camps.”
Last February, with the anticipated increase in tourism due to Super Bowl 50 festivities, Lee declared a public health emergency, and the city began sweeping and disassembling the encampments.
Jose Eloi, an immigrant, who declined to state his last name, used to camp on Division Street, but said he relocated between Shotwell and Harrison streets, due to it being less crowded and surrounded by warehouses.
“I used to have a tent up on Division, but then the store owners would always call the cops,” Jose said. “And I have to be careful because of my legal status.”
St. Boniface’s guests are allowed to sleep on the church pews on weekdays from 6 a.m. – 3 p.m. St. John’s congregation uses chairs in place of pews, which are cleared away for the ComforPedic mattresses that are used every weekday from 6 a.m. to noon.
“The guests have been surprised at how comfortable [the mattresses] have been,” Smith said. “You can’t really tell until you lie down and try it for yourself. Luckily, it’s very soft and warm and it holds the heat very well, so they have really helped out.”
Smith said the pilot program couldn’t have come at a better time, given the homeless encampment sweeps.
When the program first began, the church only had about 15 to 20 daily guests. Over the course of the last six months, the numbers increased due to rainy weather, according to Smith.
But with the project having a staff of only two full-time and four part-time employees, Gubbio relies on volunteer support.
“Father Richard was awesome,” said Jose Lopez, who at the time was the volunteer coordinator for Gubbio Project. “If there were a handful of people like him the world would be a better place. We couldn’t have got more support from the church and the staff.”
Gubbio also provides its guests breakfast, which includes a meal of scrambled eggs and hot beverages, such as coffee and tea.
Mission eateries and support groups have also contributed by donating items, such as baked goods and hygiene products, Smith said.
“The Gubbio Project has been a tremendous gift to my parish and we are very honored to be partnering up with them,” Smith said. “It’s come at a very critical time in San Francisco and I’m glad we have had the privilege to help the community in this small way.”
Story by: Adrian Pintor