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.
First night joy: clean cardboard! – right on our path, as we trudge toward the church grounds where we will pass the night. We can’t believe our good fortune, not to have to go hunting for cardboard to put between the concrete and our sleeping bags. We divvy it up for carrying, help each other balance it with all the other stuff we carry, and make our way up the hill.
We gather on the porch, near the alcove where we plan to rest. Light rain is predicted; none of us believes it will materialize. It’s the end of what used to be called “rainy season,” in the years before California’s protracted drought, and how many times has rain been forecast, and nary a drop? Should it come, regardless, there is an overhang that will protect four or five of us; the rest will sleep near the front door, where the overhang is smaller.
We are full of good spirits, chatting and singing like friends on vacation, waiting to be ready to lay our bodies down. Then: a guy pushes his cart into the alcove. We are in his place, he tells us. He sleeps here, right here, 365 days a year! His place. We stall. Any way you could share it? – one of us ventures. My blankets’ll get wet if I do, is his answer, and we don’t know him so we’re not too sure about sleeping right next to him anyway.
We were there first, and probably he’s exaggerating about the 365 days. But we are keenly aware that after seven nights we will each be in beds, and he will not. Last thing we want is to join the forces of displacement that are likely responsible for him being on the streets in the first place. We move.
And find a good place, good second choice: a grate over a parking garage. A tree that would filter the rain, should any of it actually materialize.
And it does materialize, three hours earlier than forecast. OK, the sleeping bag is staying dry inside. I put my scarf over my face so I won’t be awakened, should sleep eventually come, by the occasional big drop. Heavier. Still mostly dry inside. Very heavy. Shifting myself on the cardboard, I realize I am getting soaked.
After a while, the four of us move across the street to the overhang at a neighboring church. There we are protected from the rain, but we are already drenched. Thom from the Night Ministry brings blankets, which are dry and help a lot. but there is no dry cardboard, and no way to lie down. My teeth chatter.
Then the church’s overnight guard comes by. He looks pained. “You’re here just for a moment’s respite. Right? You’ll be gone, when I come by again?” Yes, we tell him. We would have told him anything to stay there, protected from what was now a downpour. Blessed man, he does not come by again, and we do not have to go out walking in the rain.
It isn’t until the next day that we realize that we spent the night, crouched and shivering before a mural of the Bethlehem stable.
It crosses my mind, many times that night, that I could walk over to Hyde Street to the Faithful Fools, go inside and warm up in a shower. How is it, I ask myself, not for the first time, that I am so privileged?
Finally, morning. We unfold our frozen bodies and move across to the Unitarian Universalist church, waiting for it to open. The sexton, Fulton, actually seems glad to see us. What a gift, to be welcomed inside, to be handed a cup of coffee. JD and I spread our sleeping bags and wet clothes out in her office, where the heat functions overtime and where they might actually get dry. A colleague gives me $10 so I can dry them at the Laundromat, if needed. So much kindness.
Later in the week, once I have actually learned to sleep for an hour or two on the streets outside, I dream of Fulton floating toward me on angel wings, holding out a cup of coffee.
This was District Assembly Day for the Pacific Central District, happening in the San Francisco church. The Faithful Fools are to be given the offering; JD and I are to speak, briefly, about the Fools in the worship service. That day, we are to sit inside, at a table, selling T-shirts and noses, talking to people about the work of the Fools. At the end of the day, Kay will receive the Patti Lawrence Distinguished Service Award from the District.
I do not warm up until sometime after noon, when I sit outside in the sun for 15 minutes.
Photo by Carmen Barsody