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San Francisco church offers space for ‘sacred sleep,’ support services every weekday – Episcopal News Service

Cots set up in the nave of the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in San Francisco, California, providing a safe place for more than 35 people each weekday to get much-needed sleep. Photo: Kevin Deal

(Episcopal News Service) Every weekday at 7 am, the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in San Francisco, California, opens its nave to people who need a safe place to rest – what it calls “sacred sleep.” Those who come are unhoused neighbors in the city’s Mission District, and they find a place of welcome without judgment.

“We love having our space open, almost recklessly open, for the neighborhood,” the Rev. Kevin Deal, St. John’s vicar, told Episcopal News Service. Serving its community “has been part of the DNA of St. John’s almost since its inception 164 years ago.”

St. John’s provides space for more than just sleeping through its partnership with the Gubbio Project, a nonprofit organization that serves unhoused people with “safe, compassionate respite during the day,” according to its website.

The project takes its name from an Italian town where, according to legend, St. Francis of Assisi brokered a trick between a hungry wolf and frightened townspeople. The nonprofit was founded in 2004 and moved into space at St. John’s in 2017.

Lydia Bransten, Gubbio’s executive director since 2021, told ENS that the legend embodies what her organization is about. “When people come together with mutual need, we find commonality and can work together,” she said.

Their response shines a light not only on homelessness in general but on how communities across the country seek to address it. Homelessness has been on the rise across the United States since 2017, and cities have grappled with how, where and even if to provide shelters or housing. A lawsuit against Grants Pass, Oregon, for its decision to fine homeless people for sleeping outside on public property made its way to the US Supreme Court for oral arguments on April 22.

According to the Associated Press, one-third of the country’s unhoused population live in western states like Oregon and California. The San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing’s 2022 Point-in-Time count found more than 7,700 unhoused people in the city, with more than 4,000 of them unsheltered. The 2024 count is due out this summer.

While unhoused people have existed in America since the 17th century, their needs have grown more acute than ever since the COVID-19 pandemic, Bransten said. Homeless people in San Francisco who weren’t gravely disabled or seniors “were basically left out on the street,” and with shelters closed, encampments sprang up so people could find some safety in being together. There were few services available, and many people watched others die of an overdose. “There was a lot of trauma in those years,” she said.

“The result is a community of people who are distrusting, who are more ill, and fentanyl addiction collided with COVID in a way that has been debilitating for that community,” she said.

A recent assessment of homeless people living in the Mission District found that before COVID, 68% of them were employed and had housing, she said. Immigrants make up a large portion of the area’s population, and many lost their jobs as office building cleaners or restaurant workers during the pandemic. Loss of a job often meant loss of housing.

The beauty of St. John’s space helps people feel welcome to come in not only to sleep each weekday but to receive other services through the Gubbio Project, according to Lydia Bransten, its executive director. Photo: Gubbio Project

Now when St. John’s opens its doors each weekday, about 35 people come to sleep and over 100 more arrive for the supportive services Gubbio offers. With no pews in the nave, it’s easy to set up cots with blankets, and people are welcome to bring their belongings and their dogs inside with them. Couples can arrange their cots to be near each other, which usually isn’t permitted in shelters, Bransten said. “The only rule is to just stay peaceful,” she said.

In other parts of the building people can get a cup of coffee or see one of the nurses who provide foot and wound care. The city’s Department of Public Health’s street medicine team provides health screenings and follow-up appointments. Gubbio’s harm reduction specialist, who also is a treatment counselor, provides clean needles and other paraphernalia so those using drugs can do so safely.

“That provides an entrée to a conversation with a person who is struggling with drug use,” Bransten said. Recovery from addiction always is the end goal, but “we need to keep them alive long enough, and love them enough, until they are ready to love themselves into recovery.”

Bransten said that St. John’s offers a space for Gubbio’s clients that is both sacred and safe. “Not all sacred spaces feel safe,” she added. “A lot of people have experienced a level of spiritual violence, and St. John’s is an incredibly healing community.”

Deal and some of his parishioners provide pastoral care to those who come to the church for Gubbio’s services, and many of them now attend worship services at St. John’s, something Deal says he loves. “We don’t think of them as people from Gubbio,” he said, “they are just folks in the St. John’s community.” He said that because people are familiar with the church and think of it as their space, they feel comfortable coming back on Sunday.

Bransten said St. John’s building itself helps the people Gubbio serves. “The beauty of the space is key to the way we’re able to create an environment where people feel welcomed, where they feel like it’s peaceful, it’s beautiful and it’s for them.”

“This is exactly who the beauty of God’s house is intended,” Deal said. “It’s not for the people who have everything. The beauty of God’s house is for the people who are down and out.”

—Melodie Woerman is a freelance reporter based in Kansas.