How can we better help the homeless? It’s an undying question — and as we near the colder weather, it’s a question that is asked even more.
Well, about 15 years ago, San Francisco’s St. Boniface Church began opening its doors to homeless people in need of shelter.
Known as The Gubbio Project, this was initiated in 2004 by Father Louis Vitale of the church, and Shelly Roder, a community activist. Each day, hundreds of people sleep on the church pews, under blankets provided by the staff.
As The Gubbio Project’s website says, “No questions are asked when our guests walk into the churches; in an effort to remove all barriers to entry, there are no sign-in sheets or intake forms. No one is ever turned away; all are welcomed, respected and treated with dignity.”
While the church is open for churchgoers who need to visit during the day, two-thirds of the building remains reserved for the Project.
In fact, 95 per cent of those surveyed said they always or usually feel safe at The Gubbio Project, and those who pass through are not treated like prisoners as they are in many shelters.
“This sends a powerful message to our unhoused neighbors – they are in essence part of the community, not to be kicked out when those with homes come in to worship. It also sends a message to those attending mass – the community includes the tired, the poor, those with mental health issues and those who are wet, cold and dirty,” a representative with Gubbio said.
“I’ve been waiting all year for this,” said Larry Aragon, 66, who waited in line with a backpack and suitcase for five hours before he was allowed inside Sunday evening. “They have good food, and one of the workers, named Carmen, is so nice. She always helps me get the best bed.”
Garfield Magpie, 68, said he had just arrived in San Francisco from Los Angeles and had been sleeping in the rain for several nights when a friend told him about the winter shelters.
“I didn’t have a place to go,” he said. “I thought this might be a good fit.”
“This doesn’t solve homelessness. Housing solves homelessness,” said Jeff Kositsky, director of San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, which collaborates with the San Francisco Interfaith Council and Episcopal Community Services to provide shelter space each year.
“This solves sleep,” he said. “Permanent housing is what we are striving for.”
The shelter program, which will continue through Feb. 25, will add 295 beds for adult single men to the city’s overall total, though not all at the same time. The initial opening of the 60 St. Boniface beds will increase the available beds by 5 to 6 percent.