The Crowded Streets

by Daniel Ng | 11/10/03 6:00am

The church was located in the heart of San Francisco, but you will not find it in a guidebook. The architecture was lavish. Pink marble columns lined the dark nave while light shined through the stained glass windows. The altarpiece was a grand baroque statement. Classical music played in the background. Even on a weekday morning, nearly every pew was filled. There were no awe-struck tourists though. The stench of unwashed bodies hits your nose. A murmur of snores can be discerned. Soon you realize that homeless men and women were sleeping on the wooden pews under thick piles of grey blankets. The soup kitchen next door doesn't open until lunch. Until then, the Mozart morning call at St. Boniface Church is ignored.

Centuries have passed since it was still practice for the persecuted to seek sanctuary in a church. At St. Boniface, history seems to stand still. Homeless men and women seek refuge in it every night. Outside the church, some 80 men stay in a shelter across the street. Those not fortunate enough to get a pew or mattress make do with the pavement. Come early though, the good spots outside are taken by early evening. With 8,000 homeless people in San Francisco and only 1,350 shelter beds (plus a couple of pews), competition for sidewalk space is stiff.

I worked in a soup kitchen in San Francisco over the summer on a Tucker fellowship. No, the experience was not "great," "incredible" or "awesome." In fact, it was sad and depressing. I would be perfectly happy if soup kitchens like St. Anthony's Dining Room need not exist. Unfortunately, St. Anthony's is doing roaring business. Two-thousand lunches are served every day (2,500 on a busy day). And it's not the only gig in town -- another soup kitchen down the street serves one million meals a year.

These figures are staggering, but they become worse when you attach faces to the numbers. In my two months at the dining room, I met young white men in their 20s or 30s afflicted with AIDS and HIV. I met a person who lost half his brain when a gun was shot in his face point blank. I met Vietnam veterans who lived in shelters. I met a homeless woman with prescription morphine for back pain. I met families who ate at the dining room every day -- one I saw begging outside on Market Street.

One person left a particularly deep impression on me. He came to the dining room regularly. He was homeless and had a weak heart. Sometimes his heart would give him trouble, and we would call an ambulance. The hospital will do what they can and discharge him. When he returns to the dining room, his heart will give him problems, and the ambulance will be called again. In two months, I saw this happening five or six times. This cycle will repeat until the day he dies.

Scarcity breeds greed and jealousy. Sometimes, food fights break out in the dining room. No, this isn't a case of Animal House debauchery. Rather, we have citizens of the world's most powerful country fighting over a piece of day-old bread. Or a bruised peach. Whatever it is, it's dinner for the person who gets it. Sometimes the winner throws the prize away five minutes later when the thrill of having a piece of stale bread to his name fades.

This column will not offer any miraculous policy recommendation that will eradicate the 700,000 to 800,000 homeless people in America. I will, however, offer another number. Twenty-five cents. That's how much it costs to produce each meal at the dining room. A $500 budget for 2,000 meals every day. Feeding the hungry is not an expensive affair. The dollar that buys you a burger at McDonalds pays for four lunches at St. Anthony's.

A solution to chronic homelessness and poverty is going to be difficult and only effective incrementally. These people have deep personal problems. Some are alcoholics or drug addicts. Some are disabled. Many have serious mental problems. Some lack the skills or even a proper work ethic to find employment. Each person requires a solution unique to his or her circumstance. Each will need a long period of rehabilitation and support. One person at a time.

A Franciscan priest who worked in the dining room once said, "God is most present in the poor." The poor certainly hang on to God in ways that baffles me. Many guests at the dining room come with bibles in hand and rosaries and gigantic crucifixes around their necks. Proud exhibitions of faith aside, these people are hanging on to all they have: hope. In fact, hope is all they have to live for. Hope to break out of their wretched existence.

One guy I met gave me hope. His name is Jack, and we met in an arts studio for homeless artists. He was painting a self portrait. Not any ordinary self portrait though. His painting showed an old man sleeping on a sidewalk. Jack said to me proudly, "Actually the place I sleep is concrete, but I painted it as brick." The red brick made the painting more colorful, almost cheerful in a perverse way. He also took the artistic license to include a pot of roses in his drawing. Two weeks later, I found out that Jack found a bed in a shelter. A spot outside 121 Golden Gate Avenue just opened up, red roses not included. Welcome to the City of Saint Francis.