Sleeping at the Cathedral: Hosting the Homeless

I’ve always wanted to spend the night in the Cathedral and I finally got my chance. Last week I spent the night as a host to our guests from the Interfaith Shelter. I had my reservations about sleeping all night in a room full of strangers who hail from a traditionally unsavory population. Friends warned me to be careful, to leave my purse in my car, to call if I got into any sticky situations. They needn’t have worried. Every person I encountered in the homeless shelter, also known as the Guild Room at St. Paul’s Cathedral, was kind, helpful and polite. In fact, I encountered far more troubling characters at our recent diocesan convention than I did in the shelter.

I arrived at 6:00 p.m. for a community dinner, cooked by a parishioner who also sings in the choir. Everyone seemed happy and relatively at ease; they all expressed gratitude for the meal. The shelter guests cleared the plates, put food away, washed the dishes and put them away. I felt more like a guest than a host!

A social worker sat with each person after dinner and listened to their progress toward employment and finding a home. I overheard one conversation about a guest potentially finding work with Ace Parking and another being denied medical care because she didn’t have $35 to pay a processing fee.

“It’s supposed to be free,” said the social worker.

“That’s what I said,” reported our female guest. “I said, ‘I’m homeless. I don’t have $35.’ But she wouldn’t process my paperwork.”

Sharing an Evening
After dinner I played Scrabble with two of our male guests, one of whom is the fastest word fashioner I’ve ever met. Caleb, a slight man with blonde hair and blue eyes, walks timidly as though he’s learned to tread lightly in this world. His prowess came out at the Scrabble table, which delighted me.

“Both my parents were English professors,” he said shyly when I complimented him.

The other gentleman, Brian, is the opposite of Caleb. African-American, muscular and confident, Brian expressed his gratitude for the Interfaith Shelter.

“It’s a lot better than where we were sleeping,” he said. “Everyone’s been real nice here.”

The Rev. Canon Dorothy Curry, my partner host, brought her guitar and strummed softly, taking turns with our guests. She played, “Lord of the Dance,” and “The Fox.” Some of us sang along. Others read quietly on their cots or snacked and enjoyed a quiet moment.

Around 8:00 o’clock, we got a knock on the door. A new woman arrived and joined the group. She had the proper paperwork; every individual in the Interfaith Shelter is screened by social workers before being admitted to the program. Some of the criteria are: no drugs or alcohol abuse; no history of violence; active work with a case manager, etc.

How it Works
From their web site, www.interfaithshelter.org,

The Interfaith Network involves 120 congregations of all denominations county-wide in a Rotational Shelter program. About 60 of the congregations host the program in their facilities for two or four weeks a year and the remainder serve in a valuable support role, providing volunteers for meals and overnight hosting, transportation and donations.

Through neighborhood congregations linking with others, people are sheltered where there are no shelters and receive the understanding and support of congregations when previously all they knew was fear and uncertainty. Congregations benefit by getting to know homeless individuals personally and the mutual sharing of stories is beneficial to both.

Guests are only sent to congregations in the Network after being screened by an area social service agency to assure there will be no active drug, alcohol or mental health problems. Guests sent to the Network’s congregations must be willing to work closely with the referring social service agency to resolve the problems leading to their homelessness.

This is a practical, manageable way to serve for both host and support congregations. Congregations host the program for two weeks at a time, usually once, but no more than twice a year. The volunteer and meal support they receive from neighboring congregations is invaluable. Only 12 guests at a time generally stay in the congregation facilities. At the end of two weeks, the whole operation — cots and guests — rotates to another area congregation. Guests can stay up to eight weeks in the Network.

As our new guest started to adjust to the group, one of the men asked how she was feeling, but she didn’t respond immediately. He volunteered, “stressed?” She nodded and seemed grateful that he understood.

Lights Out
At ten o’clock, I locked the portable showers. You may have seen them; they’re in the trailer parked in the gated lot on the Sixth Avenue. An ingenious contraption, the trailer boasts six showers, two toilets, two sinks and a hot water heater. Designed for traveling bands or large construction sites, it is portable.

Ten o’clock also meant lights out. No one made a peep as darkness settled over this unusual community: eight homeless people, one priest volunteer, and one lay volunteer (me), all sleeping together in the Guild Room of our church.

An unlikely community, but one where I felt at peace. After a few quiet moments of reflection, I slipped into a deep sleep, undisturbed on my cot. Nestled there in my sleeping bag, I felt completely safe and loved, and I hoped everyone there did too, these guests of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

At six in the morning, we awoke a knock on the door from another cathedral volunteer, Mary Doak. She turned on the lights and started the coffee. She had brought homemade muffins to supplement the regular fare of cold cereal and fruit. I unlocked the showers and enjoyed a hot one myself. Cathedral members had provided soap, shampoo, conditioner and clean towels. I felt the care given in these small actions that provide so much for people who have been forgotten by our society.

During breakfast, we sat around and talked over cups of hot coffee and tea as we prepared for the day. It felt like being in a large family, with everyone getting ready, passing the food, praising the coffee. Conversation topics ranged from Ghirdelli chocolate and the streets of San Francisco to political unrest in Libya and the current drug laws. I sat quietly, enjoying snippets of conversation. I heard one man say to another, “That’s the new lady,” referring to the woman who had arrived the previous evening.

“Oh yeah?” said the second man. “She’s homeless?”

“Yeah,” said the first. “She’s one of us.”

The conversation stopped me. I was surprised by how tender and open my heart felt to all homeless people, or as one of our guests likes to say, “residentially challenged” people. I was also surprised by the fact that one cannot easily tell by looking at someone if he or she is homeless or not. Even if you yourself are homeless! I was moved by the sense of community you could almost reach out and touch in those words, “one of us.” There’s camaraderie among these guests of ours. They understand each other in ways I cannot, having never lived through the dehumanization of being a marginalized and bullied by our society.

Caleb captured it when he said that he was most grateful for the showers, even more than for the place to sleep. “If you can’t get clean,” he said, “that’s when it gets really bad.”

I cannot enter fully into this holy camaraderie among our guests, but I am grateful that for one night, an opportunity to walk alongside these brothers and sisters of ours as they find their way through a difficult time.

Everyone had left the cathedral by eight o’clock in the morning; they were off on their journeys to find work and a place to live. I walked out of the room feeling proud to be a part of a church that takes seriously Jesus’ admonition to “love one another as I have loved you.” And humbled by the excellent nature of each person I encountered during my overnight at the Cathedral. May God bless each and every one of them as much as I was blessed.

-Hannah Wilder

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