Monday, June 8, 2015

Street Retreat Wrap Up and Q&A

I wrote this the morning we ended the retreat:

I am called to be present; to meet, see, hear, and be my brothers and sisters on the streets.  The first step to this is acknowledging everyone's human dignity.

This is tough because I too was raised to have judgments of those suffering from poverty.  These judgments, I've experienced, fade away by meeting people where they are.  The power of being intentional breaks through the myths of all people and brings color to the world.

Doing this I see God in all.  I am able to see a common humanity; that leads to celebration, community,  and healing.

Here are some of the more common questions I get asked.  Feel free to ask me anything else.  I would love to share more about my experience!  

Where did you eat?

Eating was not that difficult.  If I wanted to eat in the morning Glide was always an option
(8 am).  For lunch, I liked St. Anthony's over Glide (11:30 am).  And for dinner I could have always gone to Glide (4 pm).  Those are really the two main places.  But there are so many other groups and organizations that serve food and give away bagged food throughout the month.  There is a sheet of paper that shows all the organizations in San Francisco that give away food, the times that they serve, where they serve, and sometimes what they serve.  Having so many options and meeting so many people that give away food helped me with staying sane.  With all the ugly that comes with being on the streets it was refreshing seeing the good in the world.  

Where did you sleep?

The Faithful Fools are affiliated with the Unitarian Church of San Francisco.  So they let us sleep in front of their church for the week; we constantly reflected on that privilege.  Three of us tried to sleep on Golden Gate Ave one night but that didn't work out (I talk about it in my last reflection).  I mentioned to some people that I was going to try to stay in a shelter but didn't end up trying.  Being alone all day not really talking to anyone, I looked forward to coming together with the group at night.  Other than the first night of rain and one other night where it was really cold, the weather wasn't that bad.  The sleeping bag I had was perfect (shoutout to the Crocker's for letting me have it).  I was usually asleep by 10 pm and woke up around 6 am everyday.      

How did you stay clean?

I showered at a shelter once.  I think I changed my socks everyday.  If I was prepared for anything that week, it was having plenty of socks.  Other than that I think I tried not to think about being dirty that much.  There is really no point because there isn't much you can do about it.  When I told my mom I was going to do this retreat one of her main concerns was me not being able to brush my teeth.   Here you go mom!

Where did you use the bathroom?

When we woke up we were allowed to go in to the church and use the bathroom.  Again, we always reflected on this privilege.  Other than that I tried to take advantage of the bathrooms from the different organizations I went to everyday.  I really had to be strategic about when to use the bathroom.  I constantly was thinking about when I was going to be able to use the bathroom next.



Friday, June 5, 2015

1 Week on the Streets - April 30th

Last day on the streets.

The majority of us decided to put together some of the money we had left, that we made all week, to eat breakfast.  After breakfast I decided to go to the SF Interfaith Council meeting that was being held at St. Mary's Cathedral.  The theme was, if my memory serves me right, "responding to the homeless on our doorstep".  I think they said there was like 200 people from all over San Francisco there.  People from different businesses, from different service providers and non-profits, and residents from all over the city.  There were speakers from different organizations presenting on different aspects on how to respond to our homeless brothers and sisters.  I thought the intentions and ideas for this meeting could have been very powerful and worthwhile.  But the meeting got stuck.  The vocal audience was stuck on one point and would not let it go.

"If I see a homeless person on my doorstep who do I call?  Who is the first responder?  What is the number of the person that will respond to these people?" 

I couldn't believe my ears.  The point of the presenters was to highlight things that play a factor in US responding to those who are in need!  Factors like talking to someone who is under the influence, or someone who is struggling with a mental instability, or how to handle escalated scenarios, and many other factors that come in to play when WE respond to our homeless brothers and sisters.  Unfortunately, that's not what people wanted.  They wanted to know who they could call to respond to the need.  They wanted to know who they could pass off "the problem" to.  I was shocked.  People who work for organizations whose main focus is to help the homeless community wanted to know who they should call to respond to the homeless community!  I wish I was exaggerating; I am not.

I wanted to stand up and shout "WE ARE THE FIRST RESPONDERS!"

Yes, I know we are all busy.  Yes, I know this is a huge issue.  Yes, I know that we all have different expertise and goals.  But we are still the first responders.  We should have been focusing on how we can better serve the people who need our help; even if it was just to learn how important a "hello" could mean to someone.  The meeting was called RESPONDING TO HOMELESSNESS ON OUR DOORSTEPS" not "Here is the number of someone you can call so you don't have to deal with homelessness."

I thought about that meeting all day.

Nighttime came quick.  One of the Fools on the retreat was to injured to make it to our usual sleeping spot so three of us decided to sleep on Golden Gate Avenue; right in front of The Gubbio Project next to St. Anthony's.  If you are not familiar with the area, there is a lot of traffic that goes through that block.  A lot of people sleeping, dealing, and using.

I set up my sleeping bag and knew right away I wasn't going to be getting any sleep that night.  I was to scared to even be tired.  20 minutes after the three of us laid down next to the building, a man sat next to me.  He looked frustrated and ignored me for a bit.  He asked me for water and I told him I didn't have any; he continued to ignore me.  A couple of minutes passed and he began getting his supplies ready to shoot up (inject heroin).  He cut his empty beer can in half and turned the bottom side over to us as a dish.  He began cooking.  He put the heroin in and then some salt.  He had the lighter in his other hand; holding it under the beer can to cook the drug.  He kept swearing under his breath because he didn't have water.  I took out my water bottle from my bag and saw I had a couple of drops of water left that I could give him.  I said, "hey man, I have some water you can use".  He didn't say anything to me just acknowledge he would take it.  I leaned over and added the water to the mix.  He continued to cook.  Every couple of minutes he would try to suck up the heroin with the syringe but couldn't get it.  He had to keep cooking.  Finally he got it all in the syringe.

He starting tapping his forearm to try to get a vain out.  He inserted the syringe and dug around for a bit.  He couldn't get his vain.  He lifted up his pants leg and began tapping his hamstring to try and get a vain there.  He poked around for a bit desperately searching for a vain.  After digging around he gave up again.  He sat still for a second.  I noticed his breath started going faster.  I could see his chest rise through his shirt.  I started to breath faster too.  He stood up and faced the building.  He pulled his pants and underwear down.  He grabbed his penis with one hand and slowly injected the syringe into it with the other.  Slowly but surely he injected the heroin.  My heart was racing.  Not only have I never seen someone shoot up from start to finish before, right next to me on top of that, but I've never heard of anyone injecting in their penis before.  Once his high kicked in he sat back down and began talking to me.  He was actually quite friendly.

I talked to him for ten minutes or so before something caught my attention down the street.  A guy and a girl were walking in our direction.  The guy was hovering over the girl yelling and cursing her out.  About 20 feet away from us a car pulled up next them.  There was a guy in the car yelling at the guy outside on the sidewalk.  They began shouting at each other.  The car pulled over and the man ran to the couple; who were now five feet away from me.

My first thought was "this guy can have a gun, you need to run right now."  But I was frozen.  The two guys were in each others face for a couple of minutes yelling and cursing.  And then the first punch was thrown.  They started swinging and a brawl erupted.  They were fighting right in front of me so I was pinned to the wall.  I had to shift my feet every now and then so they wouldn't step on me.  The guy who was originally in the car knocked the other guy to the floor.  He grabbed his head and bashed it on the sidewalk.  He then sat on top of him and started punching him in the face with both arms (one of which had a cast).  The girl was having a hard time breathing, she couldn't even communicate properly to the two guys.  She was clearly high on something.  The guy on top was finally convinced to get off and drove off with the girl.  The other guy stood up and threatened to come back with other people.

The three of us looked at each other and decided there was no way we were going to stay there.  We got our things and left.

"Each one of them is Jesus in disguise." - Mother Teresa                      

Thursday, June 4, 2015

1 Week on the Streets - April 29th

Wednesday... it's finally Wednesday!... Wednesday... It's only Wednesday?...  Wednessssssdaaayyyy

Wednesday was tough.  The minutes were starting to turn into hours.  The hours were starting to turn into days.  And the days were starting to turn into weeks.  I felt like it was never going to end.  I felt like I had been on the streets forever!  I felt that way.  Me.  Someone who had only been on the streets for five days, in a structured way, with an end date.  The emotional and mental toll on me was really taking off.  I can't imagine the mental and emotional toll people who actually experience homelessness go through.

The Fraternite Notre Dame Sisters were serving lunch that day so I decided to eat there.  Three of us made our way there after our morning reflection.  When we arrived the line wasn't that long.  It was really hot outside though.  Standing in line, underneath the sun, carrying three bags, wearing two layers of clothing, on top of being mentally and physically tired, is not fun.  I kept telling myself that the line was going to go quick; and that I would have my food in no time.  I was wrong.  We stood in line for more than an hour.  The way the line for food was setup was confusing.  I guess there was one line for able-bodied people and another line for disable-bodied people.  From what I saw, people were taking advantage of one line because they all got their food quicker and were able to take it to go.  While the people in my line just waited.  I was beyond frustrated.  I had to look at the ground and distract myself at one point so I wouldn't say anything to the people organizing the lines and the people cutting the lines.  "Almost there.  Almost there.  Almost there."

I got my food.  And I rat out of there!  I literally bolted out of there.  I didn't want to sit and eat there.  I wanted to run out of the city.   I had all my bags in one hand and the plate of food in the other.  I ran to St. Boniface.  I didn't care that I was jay walking, cutting in between cars, that food was falling off my plate, and that my hand was getting sticky.  I needed to get somewhere where I could just sit and breathe.  The second I walked through the gates of the church the entire city got quiet.  I no longer heard things like cars honking and people selling drugs.  I felt like I had been holding my breathe for the last two hours and now I was breathing the finest air in the world.  I sat in the church's courtyard and enjoyed my food; there was a lot of meat again.

"Let the Church always be a place of mercy and hope, where everyone is welcomed, loved, and forgiven." - Pope Francis


Once I finished eating I decided I needed to get out of the Tenderloin for the day.  I needed to escape the cloud of so many different injustices.  I made my way to Golden Gate Park and stayed there.  At the park I put all my stuff down, put on some shorts, took off my shoes and socks, and soaked in the sun.  I tried my best to relax.  I wrote a letter to my girlfriend, did some reading, and even took a nap.  Even though I was physically out of the Tenderloin, my mind was stuck in the state of discomfort.

I skipped dinner to stay in the park longer; but I finally had to make my way back for our evening reflection.  Fortunately for me, a friend of the Fools made all of us some chicken noodle soup.  She also brought us bread and sprite.  I felt like a king eating on the grass.        

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

1 Week on the Streets - April 28th

I woke up and hurried to Gubbio.  Once I made it to the church I started walking up and down the isles to look for an empty pew.  I found one right in the middle of the church.  I laid my sleeping bag down along the pew for some comfort.  I used one of my bags as a pillow and put my legs through the straps of my other backpack.  I laid down looking at the ceiling, "man, it smells horrible".  I was laying down in between two other guests and the smell coming from both sides was pungent.  Then I thought, "wait a second, this smell could be coming from me".  I no longer cared about the smell, I just closed my eyes and knocked out.  As minuscule as it might seem, I experienced the core of what Fr. Greg Boyle preaches.  "Stand at the margins with people that are marginalized and those margins will be erased."

Tuesday was the first day the retreat was really starting to take a toll on me mentally.  I realized this in the afternoon when I returned to the church, after lunch at St. Anthony's, for our monthly staff meeting.  I caught myself exhibiting bipolar tendencies.  One second I was in a very giddy mood.  A couple of minutes would then pass and I was aggravated.  What I experienced is that in the moment I would try to explain to myself that there was no way I was being affected mentally.  I would think "come on, I've only been out here for a couple of days.  I'm only doing it for a week.  Nothing is wrong with me.  You're just tricking yourself to believe you're being mentally impacted."  And then, in the next couple of minutes my mood changed from being contemplative to being angry.  I was definitely being affected mentally.  The rest of the Fools and I discussed how easy it could be to turn to alcohol and drugs because of this.

Staff meeting time.

I must give a shout out to the Fraternite Notre Dame Sisters.  That afternoon, after my staff meeting, was the first time I ever tried their food.  It was delicious!  I've heard that a lot of folks like their food because they serve a lot of meat; and that they do.  I also thought it was great that they came down to the Civic Center to serve.

Finally! Food!

Waiting for the Sisters

That evening I decided to go to a Bible Study held by the San Francisco Night Ministry at the Faithful Fools.  The group that attends the Bible Study are people, from what I gathered, that have dealt with or are dealing with homelessness and/or addiction.  The first 45 minutes of the Bible Study was very pleasant and heartwarming.  It was clear that the Ministers leading the group genuinely care about the participants.  It was also very clear that the participants all care about each other.  I was warmly welcomed by all and felt very comfortable being there.  I was so happy to have discovered this community.  However, the last 15 minutes of the session were terrifying.    

The session was being held on the second floor.  I heard the door open on the first floor and someone walk slowly up the stairs.  Once he made it to the top he stopped and was breathing very heavily.  I knew right away that it wasn't because he was tired but because he was angry.  One of the Night Ministers addressed him but got no response.  He just stood there, looking forward, breathing heavily; like a bull getting ready to charge.  My adrenaline started going, my body got stiff, and my hands got sweaty.  Whatever was about to happen, I knew it wasn't going to be good.  The Ministers kept the session going and a couple of minutes later he erupted.  He started yelling.  He was yelling and cursing at the Ministers and the participants.  He was pacing back and forth, pointing his finger, just shouting.  The Ministers tried asking him to stop shouting but didn't really deescalate him.  Some of the participants tried talking to him but he wasn't listening to anyone.  He got in the faces of those trying to help and just yelled at them.  I was waiting for him to start throwing punches.  Other participants were annoyed and were telling him to leave.  I guess because he is a regular participant of this group he wasn't asked to leave.  Finally he stopped shouting for a second and sat down in our circle.  He sat down next to me.

"Oh no, you got to move right now.  Who knows if he is going to lash out again.  What if he lashes out on me?  What if he gets angry and yells at me?  Wait.  What if I move and he gets angry at that?  What do I do?"  

There was only five minutes left in the session so I decided to wait those five minutes before I got up to move.   Longest five minutes of my life.  He wasn't really shouting anymore but was clearly still distressed.  He was also still breathing heavily and making harsh comments under his breath.  My heart was beating out of my chest.  As soon as we wrapped up the session he started lashing out again.  I ran out of there.

"Jesus was not a man for others.  He was one with others.  There is a world of difference in that.  Jesus didn't seek the right of lepers.  He touched the leper even before he got around to curing him.  He didn't champion the cause of the outcast.  He was the outcast.  He didn't fight to improve conditions for the prisoner.  He simply said, "I was in prison".  - Fr. Greg Boyle        

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

1 Week on the Streets - April 27th

April 27th

TGIM!  Monday morning I woke up at 5:45 am.  Words cannot describe how excited I was to wake up and head on over to The Gubbio Project.  Finally I was going to be able to "sleep in" and get some rest indoors.  I carried my sleeping bag over my shoulders because I didn't want to waste time rolling it up; didn't want to risk not getting a pew!

One of the major lessons I learned on this retreat is that the streets have their own schedule.  No matter how well I planned my days out, to make it to lunch or for our reflections, something always happened that would make it hard to follow my plans.  It made me realize how hard it must be for our guests to follow through with their plans.

After getting some sleep that morning I decided it was a good day to take a shower.  It was really hot out that day, I already hadn't showered or changed in 3 days, and my clothes were extra stinky from getting soaked Friday night.  I had to walk all the way to MSC South to shower.  MSC South is San Francisco's largest overnight shelter and has the worst reputation; I was a little nervous going there.  Other than the long walk it was an okay experience.  I arrived at the shelter, asked if I could take a shower and did.  I'm not sure if I expected the water to be cold or if it just felt really good because I hadn't showered in a while but it felt amazing standing underneath the hot water.  I was taking my time until I remembered I left my bag in an unlocked locker behind the front desk.  Because of the long walk I missed our morning reflection.

On the walk back I decided to stop by the St. Vincent DePaul Wellness Center, where one of my housemates worked.  The Wellness Center was closing that week so I wanted to show up at least once to show my support.  Luckily for me, they were getting ready to serve lunch when I got there and she invited me to stay.  I had made plans earlier to get lunch with someone else at St. Anthony's but I could not pass up Italian Take-Out.  

That afternoon, after lunch, someone I know from Glide approached me and asked me if I wanted to be a part of a focus group; he told me I would get paid $30 dollars.  He knew that I wasn't really homeless and told me it would be a good experience for me to see how a lot of people that are actually homeless make some money.  He said "come half an hour early, 2:00 pm".  I told him that I would be there.  2:00 pm was two hours away so I decided to take a nap.  I reassured myself that I would wake up on time.  I didn't.  I woke up at 2:30 pm and ran out the church.  As I was running I slipped on dog poop right outside the church; almost fell face first.  I still had my flip flops on from my shower earlier, so now there was poop all over my foot, in between my toes, and all over my shoe.  I was 30 minutes late but he still let me sit in.


Because of the focus group and our evening reflection I didn't have time to get in line for dinner.  However, as I was walking towards Civic Center, where we met for reflection, I saw the Sisters of Mother Theresa giving food away from the back of their car.  I asked them if I could get a bag.

"Faith, it does not make things easy, it makes them possible." Luke 1:37 

That night as I was laying down waiting to fall asleep, I was reflecting on my hectic day.  I thought "I can't believe how hard it is to make it to things.  How much time it takes to walk from one place to another.  How such a small detail in the day can change the rest of the day."  I was taken aback that it was hectic for me, hectic for someone who doesn't struggle with addiction and who is currently mentally composed.      

I thought of one guest who is now a good friend of mine, she is always excited to tell me when she has a shelter bed for the night.  I always say to her "okay, make sure you make it on time for check in".  The next day she always tell me she missed it and had to sleep outside again.  Now it has gotten to the point to where she tells me she's excited to sleep inside, I tell her to to get there early so she doesn't miss her chance, and the next day she tells me she missed it again.  I always got frustrated on the inside.  But now I know that the streets have their own schedule.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

1 Week on the Streets - April 26th

I slept through the whole night.  I would force myself to wake up during the night to make sure I still had all my things and check my surroundings but I could only keep my eyes open for a couple of seconds.  The first couple of days I was scared so I couldn't really sleep; now I was scared because I was getting sleep.  For breakfast I decided to make the trek out to Martin de Porres House of Hospitality.  It was tough; I was tired, weak, and hot.  But it was worth it, the food and community was great.

After I had breakfast I decided to go to Glide for their Sunday service.  I was excited to be there.  Their service is apparently known all across the country.  The service started with the choir singing Kumbaya.  Behind the choir, pictures were being projected of homeless folks, historical leaders, and inspirational quotes.  I got very emotional singing along.  The choir singing was incredibly uplifting.

For our evening reflection we all decided to meet at the Embarcadero right next to the Ferry Building.  River of Life Christian Fellowship serves soup there every first and fourth Sunday of the month so that was going to be our dinner.  The line is formed literally along The Embarcadero street; it was packed with people!  I got in line to get my soup and immediately felt embarrassed.  People began staring, wondering what was going on.  I overheard a handful of tourists explain to each other that a group was getting ready to serve food.  I saw children ask their parents why so many people were in line.  I even saw a couple of people take pictures of us waiting in line.  Two guys in particular walked by us staring at us the whole time; I saw them turn around and walk back to where the line for food started.  They took out their phones and starting taking pictures of us.  I was fuming with anger.  I thought of our guests at The Gubbio Project and how we try our best not to let people come in and walk around and take pictures of them like they are on display.  I caught myself reassuring myself.  In my head I was saying "These people don't know you, they don't know you're not actually homeless.  They don't know you have a Bachelors degree.  They don't know anything about you".  My self-esteem was plummeting.  I thought of the quote from The Help: "You is Kind. You is smart. You is important."  I looked up and down the line at my brothers and sisters and thought of what they were thinking; how they were feeling.

Then I started thinking - "You know what, none of us in this line are perfect.  We all deal with things in our life; things that might include mental illness and addiction.  I might not deal with those things and I might not be homeless but I know I have my own struggles in my life.  Why am I so embarrassed.  All these people looking at us, taking pictures of us, have struggles in their own lives too; struggles that might include mental illness and addiction.  The only difference between us in this line and all these people walking by is that we are all about to get a nice free cup of chicken noodle soup with some good looking french bread.   They are the ones who should feel left out."


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

1 Week on the Streets - April 25th

April 25th

6:00 am.  I woke up freezing and soaking wet.  I tried not to move so my cold wet clothes didn't rub against me.  Then all of a sudden I hear Rebekah yelling "Hey! Hey! Stop! Stop!".  I jumped to my feet to see what is going on.  Turns out the guy who was getting high right next to me earlier was chasing the guy sleeping right next to us with a pipe.  I guess his high turned him violent and aggressive.  And then it hit me.  I wasn't inside Gubbio; I haven't dealt with people like that outside of my church before.  Out here, out on the streets, I have no influence or authority.  The guy finally stopped and left.  I changed my shirt and got all my things together; I only had one pair of pants so I had to suck it up and accept that they are wet.  Three of us began to head over to Glide for breakfast.  Carmen, one of the Fools with me, found some quarters in her pocket; she let me borrow two to dry my sleeping bag.  I was extremely thankful for the 16 minutes I was able to put my sleeping bag in the dryer.  I was sure that it was dry afterwards.

At Glide I tried to act friendly and nice; but inside I was anxious and frustrated.  Everything bothered me, every noise, every person, every thought!  During our morning reflection I tried my hardest not to snap at other people.  I kept reminding myself that I was feeling this way because I was tired and had a rough night.  I've always believed it but now I actually know that when our guests at The Gubbio Project snap at us in the morning it isn't personal.  How could you not be grumpy and frustrated after a night out on the streets?  After our reflection all I wanted to do was relax and just sit somewhere.  That truly is impossible in the Tenderloin.  There are no benches to sit down on.  I couldn't lay down anywhere without being asked to move.  I couldn't risk sleeping because I had to watch all my things.  All I wanted to do was sit down and read.

While I waited in line at St. Anthony's for lunch I kept seeing people I always see in the church.  It always took them a second to recognize me.  I would wave hi, they would kind of stare at me for a second, and then realize it was me, and then wave back.  All of them would then come up to me, very concerned, and ask what I was doing.  I found myself saying the same thing to them: "I want to see what it is like to live on the streets for a week to see how I can better help in the church."  I always got a positive response when I would say this; but I would feel weird telling them that.

"True charity requires courage: Let us overcome the fear of getting our hands dirty so as to help those in need." - Pope Francis. 

I was reflecting on this quote and realized why I had been feeling the way I was feeling.  I assumed that me agreeing to live on the streets for seven days was me overcoming my fear of getting my "hands dirty".  But I was wrong.  I hadn't overcome my fear; especially after experiencing my first night, I was still scared.  I wasn't overcoming my fear; my fear was growing.  All I could think about was where I was going to be able to rest next, where I was going to be able to use the bathroom next, when I was going to be able to eat next, how I was going to sleep that night.  I hated that the Sanctuary of the Tenderloin was closed.