A daytime refuge for homeless people: the duo behind the pioneering effort

In San Francisco, Laura Slattery and Tina Christopher open church doors to homeless people during the day. The women’s own lives have taken elaborate twists and turns.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Tina Christopher (l.) and Laura Slattery are each other’s yin and yang as they run The Gubbio Project.

Tina Christopher’s day begins at 5:45 a.m. as she cleans the sidewalk in front of St. Boniface Catholic Church in the Tenderloin, the once-colorful vice district in San Francisco now better known as a province of the poor, the desperate, the addicted, and the down and out.

She picks up the food containers, the needles, the flattened bits of cardboard, and the wet shoes before making her daily announcement to an awaiting throng, some of them already asleep on the sidewalk. “All right my beautiful brothers and sisters!” Ms. Christopher says in her always-chipper voice. “Good morning! Time to get up! Wakey wakey!” Then she unlocks the church’s heavy iron gate.

Soon, St. Boniface’s 74 backmost pews will cradle some 150 homeless people seeking “sacred sleep,” the sound of snoring permeating the incense-filled room. Beneath the saints painted on the church’s glittering dome, they stretch out for nine hours of vital slumber, resting their heads on ad hoc sweatshirt and T-shirt pillows or sometimes their folded hands. For a brief moment, their faces, beatific and babylike in sleep, do not betray the nights of fearful wandering and the way concrete seeps into a person’s bones and stays there.

Christopher is the program director of The Gubbio Project, a pioneering effort, believed to be the country’s first, that brings new meaning to the word “sanctuary.” Cofounded in 2004 by the Rev. Louis Vitale, a well-known peace and human rights advocate, the program provides a place for homeless people to sleep during the daylight hours, when most shelters are closed. The project is named after Gubbio, the Italian town where, the story goes, residents befriended a wolf after realizing the animal wasn’t dangerous, just hungry.

The project’s guiding lights are two women who are devoted to the dignity of the people they call “guests.” Laura Slattery, Gubbio’s executive director and public voice, is a West Point graduate-turned-social justice activist who wears jeans and hiking boots and exudes a sense of calm resolve, even in a crisis. Christopher is the exuberant all-hands-on-deck ground commander who knows the name of every guest and whose finely tuned antennae swiftly intuit their needs and issues.

They are each other’s yin and yang, and both women have led lives with elaborate twists and turns. “Tina shows me what fierce loving action is,” says Ms. Slattery. “She’s real and in the moment.” Christopher says: “I learn from Laura’s temperament. I’m very emotional. She grounds me.”

Together, they work on the front lines of this nouveau-Dickensian city: one, a place of artisanal oysters and $750 sneakers; the other, a crisis zone ruled by grim mathematics – roughly 7,000 homeless people and 1,200 shelter beds. The swelling number of “unhoused neighbors,” as Slattery calls them, has prompted Gubbio to add a second location at the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in the city’s Mission District. The two churches provide respite for some 300 homeless people a day.

San Francisco’s severe lack of affordable housing makes the project a critical undertaking, says Bob Erlenbusch, the board chairman of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

“Laura has this beautiful, centered approach to folks that immediately puts them at ease,” says Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco. “That’s a large reason why there is such a peaceful atmosphere at Gubbio. She’s committed for real to this fundamental human right: sleep for folks who get very little.”

A misnomer

Sleep deprivation can exacerbate the many mental and physical health issues that often accompany homelessness – from high blood pressure to irritability. The very concept of “sleeping on the street” is a misnomer, since most homeless people, fearing victimization, are constantly “on guard” and thus sleep fitfully, if at all, says Dr. Barry Zevin, medical director of street medicine and shelter health for the San Francisco Department of Public Health. The Gubbio Project “gives people who aren’t normally seen a sense that they are cared about as human beings,” he says.

At St. Boniface, Christopher writes daily notices on the whiteboard:

Shower bus 8:30-2
We have Blankets!
Tomorrow – some socks.

She is in constant motion, eyeglasses perched atop her head, dispensing cough drops, rubber bands, tampons, shaving cream, and other necessities from a converted confessional. She makes it a point to ask guests whether they’d prefer a pink toothbrush or a blue one, a black blanket or a brown one. “Even the simplest things are important to people who don’t have choices,” she explains.

Socks and other staples come from volunteers like Roberta Snyder, who has established relationships with housekeepers at nearby hotels and provides soaps, shampoos, and other items discarded by guests.

Like a good parent, Christopher is loving but firm. She notices a new haircut (“I didn’t recognize you!”), a nice outfit (“You’re quite the matchy-matchy”), or when someone is struggling with pain. “Carol, did you get to the doctor?” she asks a woman who has an infected toe from a puncture wound.

She comforts the man retching into a trash can, the older woman who is sobbing because her partner is missing, and she moves quickly to squash confrontations. If they persist, “Next time, it’s adios,” she says. Drug use or displaying a weapon is strictly prohibited.

Anthony Robertson, who says he has paranoid schizophrenia, calls Christopher “a people person.” “It’s not just about keeping the supplies out,” he observes. “It’s the kind word. Whether she has traveled down the same roads as some of us or not so, it’s almost like she was sent here.”

Drugs and prison

Christopher has indeed traveled down some of the same roads. She grew up outside San Francisco with hardworking, attentive parents who would tell her: “Whatever you do, be the best, even if it’s shoveling poop.”

“I can’t tell you where I went wrong,” she says.

In her mid-20s, Christopher began experimenting with drugs for fun, but the fun became a physical dependency, prompting her to live on the streets and landing her in jail twice, including two years at a state prison. She entered an addiction and employment program and went to school to be a drug and alcohol counselor. A friend worked at St. Boniface, and in 2011 Christopher began volunteering 3-1/2 hours a week, then more. “For me it was a calling,” she explains.

Slattery’s path to Gubbio, too, was circuitous. She grew up outside Los Angeles and was bullied as a young girl for being cross-eyed, a condition for which she had surgery at age 7. “Kids can be mean,” she notes. The experience would have a lasting effect. “For me it was instrumental, reminding me about judging by appearances,” she says.

The father of a high school classmate suggested West Point, where she was recruited for basketball. Her intention was to become a doctor, and in photographs, she looks every bit the proud 2nd lieutenant, 25th Infantry Division.

But she discovered that her heart wasn’t in the military, which led Slattery on a theological and spiritual journey toward nonviolence. She met Father Vitale, whom she calls “a modern-day St. Francis,” and joined him in numerous protests, including a well-publicized incident in which she hung her Army battle-dress jacket on the chain-link fence of what was then the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga., and was promptly arrested. Her protest walk with colleagues from Oakland, Calif., to a federal prison 30 miles away, where she served three months, was front-page news. “One becomes invisible,” she says of incarceration.

She worked in El Salvador, Mexico, and elsewhere for a Franciscan peace organization before grounding herself further at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. Her myriad experiences have given her a deep feeling for the powerless.

‘She loves these people’

Giovanna Tanzillo, a volunteer who makes 65 breakfast sandwiches with gourmet ingredients for guests, recalls a recent incident at St. John’s in which a homeless man collapsed with an epileptic seizure. “Laura was the one on the ground with him,” she says. “It’s not just a job for her. She loves these people. She has a Franciscan soul.”

Slattery was there at 6 on a recent morning, the guests fast asleep on donated inflatable “relief beds” in the pew-less sanctuary. She gently intervened in a spat involving a keyed-up woman veteran, using a stance learned at West Point. The woman soon apologized. “That’s OK,” Slattery told her. “I’m a vet, too.”

She thinks of The Gubbio Project as “the ministry of presence,” one that dispels some popular myths about homeless people along the way. Quite a number of donations to Gubbio’s $350,000 annual budget, for instance, are made by guests. “Last week it was $42,” Slattery says. “The week before it was 24. Flips the idea of panhandling on its head, right?”

For more about The Gubbio Project, including ways to help, visit thegubbioproject.org.

How to take action

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