‘Special way station’: SF resident sets Thanksgiving dinner tables for those without a home

Gemme Sanders, a homeless man living in North Beach, had just gotten out of San Francisco General Hospital on Monday morning after his arthritis had seized up his limbs during the cold and damp night. There was also something about a fight.

“It’s been hard living out here on the street,” the 58-year-old said from his hospital-issued wheelchair. Mostly in North Beach for the past eight years, Sanders said he has also traveled around, most recently having returned from Eugene, Ore.

“I am a traveling performer. I’m a junk drummer,” Sanders said enthusiastically. He plays “buckets, bottles, cans.”

Sanders said street life is hard, but the power to survive comes from helpful people like Marc Bruno, a longtime North Beach resident who on Monday morning gave Sanders a blue tarp for protection against the elements.

What’s more, Sanders plans to be among the nearly 600 homeless and some low-income diners at a Thanksgiving dinner organized annually by Bruno at the Saints Peter and Paul Church in North Beach, between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.

The free Thanksgiving meal is one of several offered in San Francisco today, each with their own unique characteristics and history.

In this case, Bruno said he likes “to put people together who might not otherwise meet and don’t realize … that they have love to give each other.”

He added, “I am hoping to make people realize that TV is not interesting. This is interesting.”

Marc Bruno speaks with Steven Hey, right, and Paul Parker, two local homeless men and volunteers, during preparations for the annual Thanksgiving dinner at St. Peter and Paul Church in San Francisco's North Beach district Monday, November 21, 2016. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
Marc Bruno speaks with Steven Hey, right, and Paul Parker, two local homeless men and volunteers, during preparations for the annual Thanksgiving dinner at St. Peter and Paul Church in San Francisco’s North Beach district Monday, November 21, 2016. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Some 100 volunteers will serve food and break bread with the homeless residents and get to know them.

Bruno’s meals for the homeless began some 16 years ago after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He and four other North Beach residents gathered in that community’s Washington Square Park for an ecumenical prayer.

“From that we decided, well, let’s continue this somehow,” Bruno recalled. “Let’s help people who are in need.”

The meals were held every Monday at a nearby restaurant that has since closed, and later migrated to the church where there are now monthly meals attended by about 60 homeless residents as well as the larger Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.

Bruno watched as volunteers —including help from two homeless youths he met that moment outside the church asking about free sandwiches — unloaded more than 20 turkeys from his van Monday morning.

After the unloading, he encountered Sanders passing by on the sidewalk with another homeless man and invited Sanders, who he remembered from past meals — Sanders’ first Thanksgiving meal there was in 2009 — to come by on Thanksgiving again this year.

Bruno works with a budget of under $25,000 from individual donors, three churches, including Saints Peter and Paul Church, and local businesses to pay for the meals as well as food donations. Volunteers planned to do much of the food preparation on Wednesday.

Bruno offered a unique perspective on homeless residents during an interview with the San Francisco Examiner on Monday, which included a reference to American playwright Eugene O’Neill.

The playwright inspired Bruno, 50, to ride a motorcycle to Alaska to work on a ship when he was in his 20s. The playwright’s first play, the one-act “Bound East for Cardiff,” remains relevant to Bruno even to this day.

“When I see these guys on the street, I often think of that play,” Bruno said.

It’s not immediately clear why. The play is about a sailor named Yank who, after suffering a fall, remains near death aboard the ship when he comes to grips with mortality and lost dreams, all while his shipmates, mostly his longtime shipmate Driscoll, comfort him and refuse to think he will die. Yank dies in the end.

“That play is very spiritual for me. It’s about America. You hope and hope and hope,” Bruno said. “The person who is dying is all of us. And the person — who are the homeless — is watching us.”

Bruno continued, “And all those things you gathered … it is all going to go away. And the people who are around and have nothing, to me they are like the real people who are maybe there to teach us.”

Bruno remarked on how for decades San Francisco has attempted to decrease the number of its homeless residents. There were 550,000 homeless persons counted one day in January across the U.S., a decrease since 2010 by 14 percent, while in San Francisco the homeless population has increased (like other West Coast cities) from 5,823 in 2010 to 6,996. Federal officials attributed the rise on the West Coast to the soaring real estate market and to some extent the opioid epidemic.

But the answer to bring about significant change may rest with San Francisco’s housed residents themselves.

“The more they can make it easy and safe for residents who live inside to do good for the homeless, that is the only way they are going to help the homeless ultimately get off the street,” Bruno said.

He added, “The whole idea is face to face. When you see the person you are helping and you get to know them for five minutes — that’s what’s needed.”

When asked what he would like to tell residents on Thanksgiving Day who are not homeless, Bruno said everyone has the power to help.

“It’s in your hands to help those who are homeless,” Bruno said, holding his upturned palms together over the table where he sat for the interview. “It is in your hands to change the world easily — they would be shocked and they would be made happy by the power they have in their own hands to help those who are poor.”

Then, through the window of a Columbus Avenue restaurant where the interview took place, Bruno observed a man walking across the street and carrying a sleeping bag stuffed inside a plastic trash bag that was slung over his shoulder. Bruno, politely excusing himself, ran out after him to invite him to the Thanksgiving dinner.

In the words of Sanders, from earlier in the day, if that man shows up he’ll find “plenty of turkey” and “camaraderie.”

“We have camaraderie and everybody is like family,” Sanders said. “They sit there. They’ll be yelling over at this table, and this one will be yelling over at that table, because everybody knows everybody.

“It’s comforting. It’s like a special way station.”

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