I went rushing through the neighborhood BART station, noting the unusual appearance of two customers sleeping just outside the elevators. My first thought: move them on. My second thought: did they know about the Gubbio Project?
Now, let’s review. Why do I want the two recumbent forms removed from their sleeping bags and ‘moved on?’ Well, probably for the same reasons that have lodged elsewhere in the collective consciousness. It’s not tidy to have people sleeping in the local subway system. It’s a reminder that sleeping, not to mention residing, has become something of a luxury to a few too many. As for the Gubbio Project, that’s where I have begun volunteering. The Gubbio is a sort of day center for the homeless.
Think church. Then don’t think church. Like a lot of fine things in this burg, Gubbio is run by the Episcopals. Jane knows the outfit well. Of course, that’s why I know about them too. But volunteering? What on earth can I do? No, really. I can offer good intentions, the latter renowned as the preferred paving material on the road to hell. What shelter needs a half-paralyzed old guy in a wheelchair?
Or an equally good, if not better, question: what do I get out of it?
The church in question is in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District. This is a flat, allegedly sunnier part of town, where a succession of immigrant communities have taken root. In my university days, that is to say my second round of university days in graduate school, I routinely drove my 1968 Plymouth Valiant a mile or so downhill into what was then a thriving Mexican and Central American neighborhood. My frequent destination was Mi Casa on 24th St., budget priced for a graduate student, with meals available for $3.25.
In fact, I fondly recall the immense waiter there waddling out from the kitchen as Dinah Shore sang from the perennially blaring television ‘glory, glory hallelujah.’ The waiter privately observing ‘hallelujah suya’ (to you). Anyway, that’s the Mission, or was. Software companies have sprouted all over the neighborhoods, with people making $200,000 a year wandering past those who won’t make that much in a lifetime. The Mission. My mission at Gubbio being rather modest. I park my wheelchair behind a card table and hand out small tubes of toothpaste, razors, toothbrushes and so on. While people sleep.
That’s the idea of a drop in shelter. Doors open at 6 AM, people wander in, grab yoga mats and crash out on the floor. The doors stay open until 2 PM. Everyone, particularly volunteers like me, try to be quiet. So who are these people with no place to live or sleep? Well, after a few volunteer stints I can provide a definitive answer. There is no definitive answer. They are, as one would expect, infinitely varied. I don’t know their stories, not in the full narrative sense. But I can see the latest chapters.
Just this morning I had handed one disposable razor and a toothbrush to a young African-American guy who thanked me, shook my hand and told me his name. So affable he was, that I got to chatting with a fellow volunteer when I only half noticed that the client had entered a storage area behind me. ‘This isn’t Walgreens,’ the kid muttered to himself before he was shooed away. I took this reference to the American chain drugstore to mean that an extremely extroverted superego was roping him in, deterring him from pretending that he could just take anything he wanted. No, the volunteer patiently explained to me, the kid didn’t know where he was. As for the young man’s politesse, the volunteer described this as his MO.
The latter remark was not disparaging, by the way. Just a mild warning, a reminder to be alert. Our goal is to provide quiet, a place to get some rest and a few meager supplies. And achieving these small objectives is difficult enough. Give people a chance. Hope they can make the most of it. But do keep a wary eye. These people are survivors.
The day’s slumber party ended abruptly when fire alarms began screeching and flashing. The 75 or so sleeping homeless people struggled to their feet. The project manager ushered everyone outside. I could hear the siren and screeching brakes of a fire truck just outside the thin old walls of the church. The project director watched the routine evacuation, and he did not bat an eye. Probably someone smoking crack in the toilets, he said. Happens all the time. He half apologized to his new volunteer. I told him I’d be back.