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  • Writer's pictureFr. Daniel S.J. Scheid SCP

What is Father Dan Thinking? 10-22-23

“What is the church’s policy about people sleeping out front on the sidewalk?”


A long-time neighbor of All Saints’ asked me that question this afternoon. He expressed his concerns about public safety, hygiene, and one rough-sleeper turning into an encampment. He gave me a brief history of this issue on Waller Street, and was relieved that, for the past twelve months or so, the sidewalk hasn’t had any tenants. Apparently, I’m told, in years past tent settlements have cropped up – hence quick action to nip it in the bud, and oak barrel planters planted to keep homeless people at bay.


What prompted his question was that, for the past few weeks, off and on, a man has been sleeping on the curb, right in front of church. Perhaps you’ve seen him when you’ve come to Mass. I introduced myself to him right away, assessed that he didn’t seem at all dangerous to himself, others, or property, wasn’t using drugs, wasn’t making a mess, and promptly cleaned up and moved on when I asked him to. He was generally kind to me, and respectful. One day he pointed to our pride flag and said that, though he isn’t gay, sometimes he likes to wear women’s clothes, so he knows we’re a safe place. He is vulnerable, scared of falling victim to street violence. My armchair diagnosis is that he has some kind of paranoid-schizophrenia, untreated. A couple of times in the middle of the night I’ve had to go outside to ask him to quiet down, as he was talking a bit too loudly to someone only he could see. He would sometimes strum a small guitar, which seemed comforting. He was compliant.


This morning was different. I found him more agitated and it took some convincing to get him to keep his voice to a whisper. I don’t like getting awakened in the middle of the night, and I expect our neighbors don’t either. Even though he didn’t present any threat, I was worried that his lack of sleep and paranoia would end up being an issue for him that might spiral to his detriment. He is one of thousands in our city who need help, many of whom are unwilling or unable to accept it due to their mental illness or addictions. It’s an intractable problem that our city doesn’t seem to have the imagination or will to solve. I brought him coffee and a blanket, and then I called 311 and summoned the Street Crisis Response Team. They arrived about 7:30 AM, and as soon as he saw their van, he packed up his stuff in a big garbage bag and hustled off down the street. Clearly he wanted nothing to do with them, which is common for someone who says that people are watching him and want to do him harm. The responders and I had a brief conversation; this was nothing they hadn’t seen before. I told them what I knew and they said they’d keep an eye out for him. Meanwhile I was welcome to call them again if he returned in the same state. I wasn’t sure he’d be back; perhaps I broke trust by calling the authorities.


He did come back, after Kate and I had tucked in for the night. It was about 11 o’clock. We could hear him through our bedroom window, talking as he did early that morning. I went outside and saw that he was every bit as agitated as he was earlier, and he was simply unable to stop talking, even when he said that he would as the condition for staying the night outside the church. I called 311 again and sat on the stoop to wait and witness, while he rambled on with all sorts of invective against me and other complete nonsense. This time it was the police who came. The officers were respectful; one interviewed me while the other mostly listened and offered to call the Street Crisis Response Team, but there was nothing they could do. Because the threshold to detain a person is set so high, even a clearly disoriented and troubled person could walk away, which is what he did. I learned long ago that you can’t reason with the unreasonable, as heartbreaking as it is.


What is the church’s policy on people sleeping out front? As far as I know, there isn’t one. I told that to our concerned neighbor and said that I take it on a case-by-case basis. If someone is relatively neat and harmless, quiet enough and not using hard drugs, I don’t think it unreasonable that they be given a spot of sidewalk for a limited amount of time, especially if they feel safer sleeping (or not sleeping) in front of a church that keeps its outside lights on. I suss this out by talking with them right away, introducing myself, learning their name, offering coffee or a spot of breakfast, and maybe the church bathroom. I can tell quickly if someone will be reasonable or not. If something changes, as it did with our guest, I adapt and work within the system to find them help or move them along: be wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove, Jesus once said. And, given that I live in the rectory, and not blocks or miles away, I have every bit as much skin in the game as the rest of our housed neighbors. I’m no absentee landlord.


(And as an aside … sometimes I get the sense that our housed neighbors who worry about street people think that, because I moved here from Michigan and am not a native San Franciscan, that I’ve fallen off the turnip truck that came straight from Mayberry. Never mind that I’ve been a parish priest in two of our nation’s poorest and most violent and dysfunctional cities, and that I’ve years of experience working in street missions and ministries, food pantries, soup kitchens, and the like. I’m not infallible; neither am I a naif.)


I understand our neighbor’s concern. I expect it’s shared by other neighbors who aren’t members of All Saints’ and thus don’t understand or share our Christian convictions. I’m told that many Waller Street folk prefer to keep Haight Street on Haight Street. I wouldn’t be at all surprised that, as we begin to serve meals from our kitchen again, we’ll get push-back from some of our housed neighbors. It’s happened before, right? And they’ve had over three years to get used to the quiet they prefer.


And yet, with some sense of reasoned compassion, with boundaries, and by getting to know just who’s sleeping at our door – “Who is my neighbor?” asked a questioner of Jesus, prompting one famous parable; poor Lazarus, stepped over and ignored at the rich man’s gate is another – allowing a sidewalk tenant brief respite with a modicum of attention and compassion seems a church-like, Christian thing to do. As the Anglo-Catholic Bishop Frank Weston preached a century ago: “You can’t worship Jesus in the tabernacle if you don’t see him sweating in the street.”


I worship Jesus in the tabernacle; I see him sweating in the street. That’s my policy.

God’s blessings and peace,


Dan+

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