Eight Faithful Fools went out to spend a retreat week in April, living on the streets of San Francisco – sleeping on concrete and standing in food lines for our meals the way so many of our neighbors do. Over the next days, I will be reflecting on our days and nights in this space.
When I tell people I spent a week on the streets, they often wonder: did you take food with you? What did you eat, and where?
Was I ever hungry, during my week on the streets?
Well, yes. I carried a few nut bars with me, but they were consumed pretty quickly, and then they were gone. I had no money with me, so I couldn’t buy something to eat just any time I wanted to. But could I keep myself nourished? Yes, and sometimes better than I do at home. In part, because I couldn’t eat whenever I wanted to.
When you go out on a street retreat, you consciously remove yourself from the money economy, the swirl of commerce that surrounds anyone living in a city. I might be hungry; I might pass a restaurant and see people dining inside; I might register delicious smells wafting out of the doorway. But these have nothing to do with me. I am living, for this one week, in another economy.
The first night, we ate at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in the Mission. There’s a group that cooks there once or twice a month for whoever shows up, and this night there weren’t many who did. All vegan food: stir-fry, potatoes, black beans, salad, corn on the cob. If I hadn’t vowed not to use my cellphone on this retreat, I’d have taken a picture of this glorious meal and posted it on Facebook.
We found it, and many other delicious meals, on the “Free Eats” chart put out by “freeprintshop.dot.org.”
Why so few to eat so much food, and listen to the musicians lined up to entertain us at St. John’s? Rebekah thinks maybe it’s because it’s outside the Tenderloin – not far, but a bit of a walk; maybe it’s hard for people who are struggling to move outside their comfort zone. (Of course, there are homeless people in the Mission, too). Maybe people don’t know about the “Free Eats” chart, or maybe they don’t have a smartphone or access to a computer to view it. Or maybe they’d had enough of walking miles to a place for food that didn’t materialize, because that can happen, too, on the streets.
But we are still in our first day, so our energy is strong. Plus, we know we are leaving the streets after only a week; we know there are beds and homes and showers, our own regular routines waiting for us after just seven nights.
Maybe it’s that people stay away because it’s a church, and they think they will have to listen to a sermon to get fed. Another time on the streets, we were told that meals like that are “ear-bangers.”
Turns out, it’s not the church at all, but an anarchist group that uses the church to serve food for anyone who is hungry. Volxkuche has a logo that shows a knife, a fork, and a spoon falling into the wheels of a machine. They pass out stickers; I put one on my water bottle. A tall, bearded man wielding a spatula over the outdoor firepit says Volxkuche began in Germany as a way to bring people together for food and community.
Friday night was the culinary high point of our seven days on the street, but I had good meals every day – at St. Anthony’s Dining Room, at St. Martin dePorres, served on the street by the Sisters of Notre Dame or Food Not Bombs, and breakfasts at the Curry Senior Center and the Living Room. Oddly, I never got to Glide, not once this week, but many of our people ate there too. JD said eating at Glide made her feel that she was in prison, because nobody looked at her; nobody smiled.
As a senior citizen, I could assert privilege and go to the front of the line at St. Anthony’s. It was near the end of the month, so the lines were long. They were tense, too, sometimes. At Curry Senior Center, there was a lot of anger about line-jumping; there seemed a racial element to it, but as a white person I don’t necessarily trust my perceptions of that. Personally, I felt tense because they wouldn’t let the little old disabled ladies sit on the steps while we were waiting for the doors to open. The security guard told us the management insists, because if people sit on the steps they might be drug dealers. Oh c’mon, we argued: you can’t tell drug dealers from these little old ladies with their canes? But he just shrugged: following orders. And we didn’t want to give him too hard a time; he loses his job, he could be standing in line too. That’s the way the U.S. economy works; throwing people out of work and out of housing is intrinsic to the machinery.
Anyway, now you know: people who live on the streets of San Francisco have abundant food available to them, if they have the strength and wherewithal to stand on sore, tired or disabled legs in a long line, or if they can get to where it is being served, or if they don’t miss the limited times it is offered. The food is usually nourishing, and, though it doesn’t always look appetizing, it is often tasty. It is cooked and served by people who even sometimes, often, look at the people they are feeding and offer a smile of kindness — recognition of a fellow human being.
Are you thinking that delicious and abundant food should not be given away to people who live on the street, and to people who have limited resources? Are you thinking they don’t need or deserve the kindness of a smile? If you are, please join us on a one-day street retreat. We promise you nourishment: a day of opening your eyes and perhaps your heart to what is.
Next up: Where to pass the night