Friday, February 11, 2011

St. Anthony Foundation in San Francisco

For me, one of the highlights of the law professor conference was an optional service project at the St. Anthony Foundation in the Tenderloin district. It is a Catholic ministry serving the homeless and the poor.

The volunteers coordinator gave us professors an insightful talk about the backgrounds of the clients of the Foundation, the complex poverty issues in the Tenderloin area and the specific challenges encountered by the Foundation’s clients. I was surprised to hear that many of the clients of the Foundation are not homeless, they have jobs but do not earn enough to support themselves. They often do not show up early in the month, i.e., soon after payday. But they come seeking services once their meager funds for the month have been exhausted and they can no longer afford to buy food.

She explained that there are six basic demographic groups who are served by the Foundation: (1) the homeless, (2) the disabled and senior citizens who are dependent on government assistance, (3) families with children, (4) those who are mentally ill or have substance abuse problems, (5) veterans and (6) recent immigrants. She noted that these different groups overlap in many instances, but the identification of these groups helps one understand how clients come to need the services of the St. Anthony Foundation. She also mentioned that people in the latter category (i.e., recent immigrants) were most likely to escape the poverty of their current situation.

The volunteers coordinator explained that the people who have homes are in single room occupancy units in the Tenderloin. Typically their homes are the size of a closet, have shared bathrooms and have no facilities for preparing food. She noted the difficulty of families surviving under such circumstances—taking shifts to sleep, not getting nutritious meals, and not having a place for children to study or play.

I was privileged to be in a group of volunteers who were put to work in the St. Anthony Dining Room. The Foundation expressly does not use the term “soup kitchen” because that is impersonal; they would like the clients to build community over their meals, like people do at their family’s kitchen table.

After a brief training, I was set to work carrying trays of food to the clients sitting at tables. I was quite nervous. I’ve always been impressed by waiters and waitresses for their ability to carry trays of food and drink without dropping anything. I’ve been grateful that I had other avenues to earn a living because I frankly doubt I would be able to hold down a job as a waitress. Nonetheless, I am happy to report that I did not drop anything on any of the clients at the St. Anthony Dining Room. (Phew!)

Later, I was assigned to bus tables, which surprisingly I found to be even more of a challenge than delivering the trays. Many people did not finish their “juice” (which resembled Kool-Aid) and I had to balance lots of full cups in my bussing tub without spilling it all over myself, the floor or the clients. It was not easy.

And towards the end of my shift, they asked that I go around to serve clients water. This turned out to be quite a task because I could only manage to carry a couple of cups in my hand at a time and a lot of folks were thirsty! My water service was frequently interrupted as I ran back for more cups. As a result, there was a lengthy wait to get water if one was not inclined to drink the “juice” that came standard with one’s meal. Lugging a huge pitcher of water also hurt my wrist after a while. Consequently, I was very impressed by the petite nun who cheerfully handled water duty the entire time I was in the Dining Room. She seemed to be a regular at the St. Anthony Dining Room, and seemed to know many of the clients. Assuming she does water duty on a regular basis, I’m guessing she has arms of steel at this point.

I was extremely glad to have had an opportunity to work at the St. Anthony Dining Room during my visit to San Francisco. It was heart-breaking and humbling. There were several women with young children in the Dining Room. As a mother myself, that brought some moisture to my eyes. Parents want the best for their children. We can tolerate deprivations that impact just us, but I cannot imagine the agony of not having the basics to provide for one’s own child. See mothers with young children in the St. Anthony Dining Room was an important reminder of how fortunate my children and I are. And it frankly made me angry that in this country of abundance other children do not have the same experience.

Several things struck me while I was serving clients in the Dining Room. First, the folks were waiting in long lines to get into the modest sized room with tables and it was pretty cold outside. As a wimpy gal from the Sun Belt, being outside briefly was hard for me that day. The folks in that line were clearly very hungry to be waiting like that for a chance to get inside. The room itself was pretty cold. I don’t think there was any heat, but at least the wind was not blowing on us. I had worn a t-shirt because I thought I’d get messy; I was freezing though I was constantly moving around the Dining Room.

The clients of the St. Anthony Dining Room were very grateful for the meatloaf, mashed potatoes and doughnuts served that day. To take some food with them, many of the clients were shoveling extra helpings into flimsy sandwich baggies provided by the St. Anthony Foundation or filthy plastic containers the clients had brought with them. They understandably did not want to be hungry later, but I worried that the baggies were going to break and make a mess. I was also worried that they might get food poisoning from the way they were transporting food for later.

Despite the fact that folks were really hungry, few of them ate the bread or the fruit that was served on their trays. We volunteers felt bad that so much food was going to waste. A wise friend of mine volunteering that day guessed that it may have been an issue with the clients’ teeth. The bread that had been donated for lunch was French bread and sourdough. The fruit served was apples. The volunteer coordinator later confirmed my friend’s guess. Apparently, the city of San Francisco did not provide dental services to the poor, but would pay to have teeth pulled. The volunteer coordinator indicated many of their clients simply had few or no teeth. They probably would have loved to eat the tough bread and fruit, but were not physically able to do so. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes were more manageable.

Though the bread and fruit were not popular with the clients, many of them were enthusiastic about the little slabs of butter placed on each tray. Some of the clients were going around to various tables asking if anyone had any butter left over. I wasn’t sure what that was about. My wise friend indicated she thought they might use it for lip balm in the cold. That made a lot of sense. I had forgotten to bring lip balm with me that day and after just a matter of hours my lips were sore and chapped. I cannot imagine what would happen if you lived on the street exposed to the harsh San Francisco cold and wind.

Another thing that struck me about my visit to the Dining Room was the ways that the clients spoke to me. As a gal who is originally from the South, I instinctively “ma’am” and “sir” people I don’t know, and my mama taught me to say “please” and “thank you” early and often. Many of the clients seemed a little surprised by such courtesy, but they seemed to really appreciate it. Many extended it right back to me. They would thank me for serving them or they would voluntarily reach across the long table to hand me something I needed to pick up. Several ladies complemented me on my curly hair. Some of the clients read the name tag I was given by the volunteer coordinator and would make a point to thank me by name. Some of the clients called me “dear,” which seemed sweet.

I have to admit a few of the male clients called me “honey” and “sweetheart.” Those names were sort of borderline, but seemed generally well-intended. However, one gentleman called me “baby,” which didn’t sit real well with me, but I was mature enough to not get riled up. Another client was pretty rude to me and insinuated that I was deaf and/or not too bright when I was trying to serve water to a ridiculously large number of thirsty people and couldn’t stop what I was doing to serve him right away on the other side of the Dining Room. Again, I didn’t get bent out of shape. I’ve served under-served communities at many times in my life, and have found that sometimes people who continually are disrespected and dumped upon just need to vent a bit. None of us likes to be treated like that and it can be hard on one’s dignity. I understand that and am grateful my own dignity has not taken such dings over the years.

The St. Anthony Foundation’s website is available at the link below. Theirs is an extensive and very important ministry. I know they also always need funding. Things are particularly difficult for them right now because government grants have dried up and in the current economy demands for their services have risen.

Luke 18:7

Now, will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them?

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