A place in the Tenderloin where sleep is sacred

May 24, 2016

Every morning in the Tenderloin, when people all around San Francisco are starting to wake up, around 30 people gather at St. Boniface Church, waiting to go sleep. This is the story of one morning.

5:45 a.m.

When I arrive, I see Josephine Piroelle bundled up in two hooded sweatshirts, a hat, and mittens.

“Like a car runs on fuel, a person won’t run without any sleep,” she tells me.

Piroelle has been homeless on and off for a while. A month ago, she says, her boyfriend kicked her out of his place.

“I used to take casino buses and stay in casinos the whole night and sleep on the casino buses,” she says. “But my friend brought me here and told me you can always come.”

From 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. almost every pew in this church, and every space on the floor, is a place she could sleep. There will be two masses during the day, but no one will ask her to move.

“I've not slept maybe this good in oh God, over a year,” Piroelle says.

This arrangement works thanks to the Gubbio Project, a nonprofit that started working with this church 12 years ago. It’s named after an Italian village, where legend has it St. Francis negotiated an agreement between frightened villagers and a hungry wolf, finding common ground. Here at the church, both space and time are shared. As long as the Gubbio Project leaves a few rows of pews open for worshippers, the nonprofit’s staff can help the homeless people with whatever they need to sleep comfortably.

6:00 a.m.

The church doors open. People file in, dragging their belongings up a metal ramp and along the floor behind them. Suitcases, carts, blankets and clothes in plastic bags. Piroelle finds a spot near the front, puts down her backpack, and stretches out on a wooden pew. She asks program manager Tina Christopher to wake her up at 9 a.m. so she can get to an anger management class downtown.

“I don’t want to go to my class all amped up, you know, wired and everybody thinking differently about me,” Piroelle says.

It takes only a few minutes for everyone to settle in. Christopher walks around the aisles, lighting incense and turning on the radiators. She lays out a cardboard box full of blue and white bars of soap and puts a pile of resource pamphlets on top of the church’s grand piano. By 6:30 a.m., almost every pew is taken. A hush falls over the room, some people begin to snore.

“We definitely have gone from an average of like 60 people a day to over 100 people, and that’s sleeping at one time,” Christopher says, whispering so she won’t disturb anyone. She’s worked here for five years and says every year, more people come. The confessional booths have been converted into storage cabinets where people can get things like toothpaste, Tylenol, razors, and toilet paper.

“Essentially it went from ordering every two, three weeks, to about every other week, if not more,” she says.

The Gubbio Project started around the same time that then-Mayor Gavin Newsom announced his 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness. He said that by 2014, there’d be no more need for emergency shelters, because as soon as a new person arrived on the streets, someone would help them.

Ten years and $1.5 billion later, the city says it’s moved almost 20,000 homeless people off its streets into shelters and public housing. But the overall homeless population hasn’t gone down, it has risen since the last official count in 2013. When one homeless person is helped, another immediately takes his or her place, and it’s hard for the city to keep up.

Not everyone sleeping on these pews is chronically homeless. Some people are between shelters. Others may just be here for the free haircuts, foot massages, and clothing vouchers.

“ I want to get out of the judgment game,” says Laura Slattery, head of the Gubbio Project. “They're here because they don't have a house.”

She says people need a lot of different things — and that’s what the group tries to handle.

“We're doing a good job of being welcoming, and the streets aren't welcoming,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what people's sobriety level is at that moment, it doesn’t matter what their gender identification is. It doesn’t matter what their sexual orientation is, or their mental health status.”

Welcoming everyone brings challenges. Sometimes people yell, scream, and wake others from their sleep. The staff at Gubbio don’t do case work, but Slattery says they walk with people -- stay with them both mentally and spiritually as they try to calm them down. They physically walk with people too, around the block to help them relax, or across town to a doctor’s appointment. Slattery says it’s that daily work that’s most valuable.

“Every day someone walks in and they live another day, that’s the success story,” she says. “They didn’t die on the streets, they feel welcome, they feel dignity — that's success.”

7:00 a.m.

Around 7 a.m. I meet Joanna Love.

“It’s a good thing to get out of the cold, but I’ve been coming here because it's a sanctuary, it’s like an oasis in the desert,” Love says. She says something about the sacredness of the place, and the sacredness of sleep, makes people calmer and more relaxed in here.

“I’ve only seen two fights in the five years that I’ve been coming here, and that’s a really good thing.”

Love also says the church is starting to get crowded. Sometimes, even if she lines up at 5:45 a.m., she won’t be able to claim her favorite sleeping spot on the floor near the warm radiator.

7:30 a.m

The church’s priest rings the bell for mass. Some people wake up and stand to pray. For others, the sound means breakfast. Every Friday morning, volunteers come to cook and share food with the people who sleep and rest on the pews. But there are only seats for 50 people, so they pull pew numbers out of a hat.

I find Love in the cafeteria with a cup of hot coffee and a fork full of hash browns.

“Today they’re having hash browns with green onions,” she says, reviewing her plate. “They’re having omelet with meat, cheese, or vegetables. They have homemade biscuits, coffee, orange juice, a beautiful table...as a matter of fact I think I’ll stop talking, see you later.” And she walks away.

9:00 a.m.

After breakfast, the church becomes a bit airier, a bit lighter. People quietly mingle in the back, asking about other city services, figuring out where they can sleep tonight, and getting ready to go back out on the street. Every other week, a nurse podiatrist comes to clean and massage peoples feet. The sound of feet getting scrubbed and toenails getting clipped echoes across the hall.

12:00 p.m.

Some Gubbio project guests drop by in the afternoon to share good news with the staff. I meet a man named Stephen Palmer who’s been sleeping here on and off over the past six years, and has finally secured a job selling cell phone plans. Last night, he slept at a shelter.

“I was on the San Francisco public housing wait list, and my number popped up, so I’ll be getting housing in another week or two,” Palmer tells me.

2:40 p.m.

Tina Christopher and the volunteers begin to wake everyone up. Slowly, people open their eyes. They stretch, yawn, and gather their things into plastic bags and suitcases, dragging them behind as they make their way out of the church. I catch Joanna Love on her way out the door and ask her where she’s headed. Downtown, to Golden Gate Avenue, she says. She doesn’t know where she’ll go tonight. But she’ll be back here again tomorrow morning at 5:45 a.m., ready to sleep.

This story originally aired on March 9, 2015.

In December, The Gubbio Project opened a second site, at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in San Francisco’s Mission District. Click here to find out how you can get involved.