“Jerome” drove a taxi, and limo, in San Francisco for 15 years.
But after he lost his job, for the last five years he’s lived on the streets. And though he wasn’t willing to share his real name, he did relate a stark reality of homelessness:
Living on the street is harsher in the winter and in the rain.
“It’s so hard,” he said, sighing. “The feet get over-wet. At night you go underground in subways. I get scared, you’re all by yourself.”
For the next seven days, however, Jerome will have a bed to call home at St. Boniface Catholic Church in the Tenderloin, as of Sunday. And other institutions of faith across San Francisco will begin to open their doors for the wet winter months in succession.
It’s an annual tradition that started 28 years ago, said Jeff Kositsky, director of the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, which funds the Episcopal Community Services’ winter efforts. Staffing, permitting and other aspects of the winter ritual are handled by Episcopal Community Services, and the church host spaces, as well as congregation volunteers who serve meals, are brought together by the San Francisco Interfaith Council.
“Folks on the street have real high needs,” said Kathy Treggiari, director of programs at Episcopal Community Services. “They’re cold. They’re wet. They’re sick. They’re tired.”
This winter the additional 60 to 100 additional shelters beds will be provided at St. Boniface Church, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption and the First Unitarian Universalist Society Church, all in turn.
The beds serve single men only, as women’s winter shelter was converted to a year-round space at Bethel AME Church in 2014.
“These congregations are sacrificing their space for a month,” said Michael Pappas, executive director of the Interfaith Council. “They do so graciously.”
Rita Semel, founder and former chair of the council, said she remembered when the winter shelters were first first proposed by former Mayor Art Agnos. He then told faith leaders San Francisco lacked space for the increased demand for shelter in the winter –– faith leaders came together to provide it, and have done so ever since.
“I hope the day will come when we won’t be needed,” she said.
The winter spaces are available on a first-come, first-serve basis each Sunday and a ticket guarantees a seven-night stay and two meals a night.
Kositsky emphasized that this is not a permanent solution to homelessness, but it may ease increased demand for winter shelter.
Few know that better than “Jerome,” who said he’d been standing in line around the corner from St. Boniface since noon Sunday just to make sure he got a bed. More than 50 others waited with him.
Looking less like a man who lives on the street and more like a tourist in his orange fleece, blue windbreaker and hat, Jerome cupped his hands together and breathed on them for warmth.
“It’s good,” he said. “For seven days.”