Sanctuary: San Francisco church opens its pews to the homeless

Huffington Post has a longer look at this project this week, but the San Francisco press has been covering it for a while. The undertaking is, in a word, remarkable:

The ornately painted ceiling, stained-glass windows, huge marble columns and organ pipes high above the wooden pews could make St. Boniface Church a stop on any San Francisco tourist’s must-see list. But the loud snores and incense burned to help cover pungent smells quickly indicate this isn’t your standard sanctuary.

For the homeless people who enter the Tenderloin church at 6 a.m., it’s something even more sacred: a place to stretch out and enjoy hours of safe, uninterrupted sleep.

Project Gubbio was founded around Easter 2004 by activist pastor Rev. Louie Vitale, who retired several years ago. He named it after the town of Gubbio, Italy, where legend says that townspeople befriended a killer wolf who they realized wasn’t dangerous at all – just hungry.

Like the city’s response to homelessness itself, Project Gubbio has had its fits and starts. In 2006, it was nearly shuttered due to lack of funds, and its sleep hours were slashed from 7 a.m.-4 p.m. to 8 a.m.-noon.

The project has regained some of its footing, in part due to a $100,000 gift from the Sisters of the Holy Family in Fremont. It’s now open from 6 a.m.-1 p.m. every weekday.

But it has also seen an influx of people wanting to stretch out on its 76 pews, and those who run the program say it’s because of the demolition of the old Transbay Terminal. In fall 2010, when the terminal was razed, Project Gubbio had an average of 54 sleepers. Now, it averages 90, and there are plenty of days when the total exceeds 100.

“After (the terminal) closed, there were a lot of new faces that showed up,” said Dave Webber, a hospitality monitor for the project. “A lot of people didn’t realize how big that complex was, and there were a lot of nooks and crannies where people could get out of the wind.”

Many homeless shelters close in the early morning and don’t allow homeless people to stay during the day unless they have a medical condition that requires it. And the city’s new ban on sitting or lying on sidewalks during the day means homeless people have to keep moving.

Bevan Dufty, the mayor’s new point person on homeless issues, said finding respite during the day is challenging. “That’s a great service they’re providing,” he said of Project Gubbio.

Check out the San Francisco Chronicle for more.  And visit the Gubbio Project website for additional details.

Photo: Brant Ward, The Chronicle


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