SAN FRANCISCO — When Pope Francis welcomed 200 homeless people to the Vatican for dinner on July 1, Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, in speaking for the Holy Father, told the homeless diners, “This is your home and [Pope Francis] is pleased that you are here.”

For the past decade, a historic parish in downtown San Francisco’s toughest neighborhood, known as the “Tenderloin,” has extended a similar welcome to the area’s large population of homeless. Of San Francisco’s 6,500 homeless, most live in the Tenderloin.

Even in broad daylight, the neighborhood can be a frightening community to visit. It is known for its high crime rate, drug abuse, graffiti, strip clubs and general run-down appearance. However, it is also home to St. Boniface Church, founded in 1860 to serve German immigrants coming to the city during the California Gold Rush. Today, the church is known for The Gubbio Project, its program to serve the homeless.

A decade ago, the now-closed St. Boniface Neighborhood Center, located across the street from the church, was a charitable organization that helped the homeless. While there were shelters for the homeless at night, there were few places that opened their doors to them during the daytime that provided safety and shelter from San Francisco’s trademark cool, foggy and wet weather.

Franciscan Father Louis Vitale, pastor from 1992-2005, welcomed the homeless to sleep in St. Boniface during the week when its doors were open for Masses. “Father Louie” is well known for his focus on social justice and political activism, having been arrested literally hundreds of times for civil-disobedience protests, often at military facilities in opposition to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Father Louie believed that allowing the homeless to rest or sleep in the church during the daytime was consistent with the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi.

The Gubbio Project was launched in 2004. The project is named for the Italian town where, according to the legend, St. Francis negotiated a peace agreement between a hungry wolf and frightened townspeople; the program, in part, fosters communication and understanding between the homeless and “housed” residents of the community.

Today, the church opens its doors to the homeless Monday through Friday from 6am to 1pm. When the doors open, about 30 homeless people are waiting to get in, and the number steadily increases throughout the morning. In the back two-thirds of the pews, the homeless may sleep. Masses are carried on in the front of the church at 7:30am and 12:15pm.

The homeless visitors are offered needed supplies for the streets, including food, toiletries, clothing vouchers, socks and blankets. Two paid hospitality monitors, who are often former homeless persons themselves, are onsite to monitor the program and provide needed help. They also ensure that rules are followed, such as prohibitions against cellphone usage, loud talking, eating and drinking, drug or alcohol use and sexual activity. 

 

A Haven in the Church

Tina Esquer is a hospitality minister who was once homeless herself. She began as a volunteer, and then was offered her position two years ago. She said, “The homeless are our brothers and sisters, those less fortunate among us who need our help. It’s an honor to assist them. I try to provide them with a listening ear, love and respect.”

The homeless usually follow the rules of visiting the church and remind each other to do so, she said. At the beginning of the month, when the homeless receive aid checks and can afford a room, the church welcomes about 45 people daily. When their money runs out towards the end of the month, the number swells to 100.

The ministry’s greatest material need is socks, she said, and with cold weather approaching, jackets will soon be in big demand as well.

Laura Slattery has served as executive director of The Gubbio Project for four years, working out of the basement of the church. She said, “Our goal is not to make St. Boniface a homeless shelter. Our homeless population needs a place to stay in the daytime that is safe, and we’re open for Masses anyway, so why not invite them to come here?”

Housing them in another building that is not a church would not be as effective, she argued, “because the problem of our homeless is isolation, and being in St. Boniface helps them to be part of a community. There aren’t many other places where homeless are welcome to come.”

She has no firsthand knowledge of other churches that have a similar program, but hopes more church communities will consider following the St. Boniface model.

 

Some Criticism

The program has had its critics, who argue that a church is not an appropriate place for homeless to gather to sleep. Additionally, some pastors after Father Louie have not shared his enthusiasm for the program.

However, Slattery noted that both the current pastor, Father Tommy King, and San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone have been supportive of the program.

Repeated attempts were made to contact Archbishop Cordileone to comment on The Gubbio Project, but no response was received by press time.

The Gubbio Project has played a vital role in the lives of some homeless, Slattery said, adding,  “I have had several homeless persons tell me that they would not be alive if it weren’t for the program.”

The homeless Slattery meets at St. Boniface are mostly men, some of whom have mental health or addiction problems.

Rob Grant has served as a board member of The Gubbio Project for the past four years. He said, “My commitment to my Christian calling beckoned me to be involved. … It is a Gospel calling.”

Although there are many programs to assist the homeless in the City by the Bay, Grant likes the Gubbio approach because it doesn’t merely provide for the needs of the body, but “approaches the homeless person as someone who has spirit. … Just as St. Francis saw the Divine in all creation, we see it in the homeless.”

Grant lives just outside of the Tenderloin, and when he walks into the community, he is “reminded how fortunate I am to live in a safe place.”

The Tenderloin is dangerous, he said, because of the “anxiety and precariousness that accompanies poverty. … The homeless there are just trying to survive, and when we’re reduced to a survival level, we act like animals.”

Creation of a safe haven like The Gubbio Project eases the anxiety, fear and poverty from which the homeless suffer, and the homeless can become “gentle, kind, compassionate and sweet,” Grant said. “A person’s ability to be ‘other-oriented’ is in proportion to their sense of safety.”

Grant feels a sense of gratitude when working with the homeless, because “but by a step of good fortune, I could have become homeless as well.” He has seen, for example, many older men like himself who are Vietnam veterans who developed drug or mental-health problems that ultimately led them to a life on the streets. He reflected, “I could have been sent to Vietnam and had that experience alter my life. I was fortunate instead to have had the opportunity to go to college, get married, get a good job and live a normal life.”

 

Budget Constraints

The ongoing challenge of Grant and his fellow board members is to fund The Gubbio Project. When it began, the city offered much of its funding, but due to budget constraints, the program must now rely mostly on private donations. The board, in fact, is seeking additional funding to expand the program to neighboring churches with large homeless populations. Grant noted, “Our future is bright, but precarious.”

Both Grant and Slattery are inspired by Pope Francis’ outreach to the poor and homeless.

“As Pope Francis has reminded us, we’re the Church of the poor, where the poor feel welcome,” said Slattery.

“I believe that with The Gubbio Project we’re doing the work the Holy Father is calling us to do.”

Register correspondent Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.