Any religion ghosts? Massive San Francisco homelessness project comes up short

San Francisco is the nation’s 14th largest city but it’s second in the country (after New York) in terms of homeless people per capita. That’s one in 200 people sleeping on the streets.

The situation has become so dire that last month on June 29, dozens of area media outlets coordinated a tsunami of coverage so that anyone logging onto the Internet, turning on the radio or TV or picking up a newspaper would have to hear about one of the country’s most intractable problems.

The media cooperation alone on this project is worth several news posts. But, despite the well-meaning roots of this project, it comes up short. Haunted? You bet.

Why? Let's start with this fascinating overview of the problem as sketched out by the San Francisco Chronicle. We read that the bulk of the street people are chronically homeless and that at least one third are mentally ill. If they pose no threat to anyone, no one can force them to take shelter.

Today, despite the efforts of six mayoral administrations dating back to Dianne Feinstein, homelessness is stamped into the city so deeply it’s become a defining characteristic.
San Francisco initially responded by providing temporary, spartan shelters. Now, it permanently houses thousands of people salvaged from the streets through multimillion-dollar residential and counseling programs. But still, the city remains home to sprawling tent cities, junkies squatting on blankets shooting heroin, and all manner of anguished destitute people and beggars holding out hands.
The city’s last official count, in 2015, put the adult homeless population at 6,686, though many officials and advocates for homeless people say the number is much higher.

When you click here to see the list of stories on homelessness in every outlet from Mother Jones to Buzzfeed, you may notice there’s one thing left out.

A hint: Who’s been tackling homelessness worldwide since 1865? The Salvation Army. The Army started work in San Francisco in 1883. If they are mentioned anywhere in this media glut, I have yet to find it.

Actually, if any religious group is mentioned in any detail, it's well hidden.

Well, there is a mention of Navigation Centers, which is a joint project involving the San Francisco Interfaith Council and Episcopal Community Centers. However, the URL for that piece is about something more R-rated (a history of sperm, actually) than homelessness. Might want to check those links, folks.

In a history of homelessness in San Francisco, this KQED-TV story mentioned a Catholic soup kitchen in the Mission district in 1982, but didn’t elaborate. An evangelical Protestant group, Bay Area Rescue, had already started in 1965.

Anyway, I googled “San Francisco” and “churches,” “mosque,” “synagogue,” “Jewish” and “Islam” along with the word “homeless” and in the space of five minutes came up with the Homeless Church of San Francisco, as well as St. Boniface, a Catholic church that gives homeless a safe place to sleep during the day, information on a Passover Seder for the homeless, as well as a Jewish congregation that actively helps those on the streets. Not to be left out is the Islamic Society of San Francisco's work as well as a piece about a phone app for San Francisco’s homeless developed by a Muslim woman. And that was from a five-minute search.

Given that the local media were all over a Catholic church that installed a sprinkler system to drench the homeless encamped on its doorstep last year, one would hope that the 70-some outlets would have done something about how religious groups were out there helping the poor before anyone else was.

But they weren't If you check out KQED radio’s list of places where homeless can get free food, did you notice how the majority have some kind of Christian connection?

It stuns me that not one media organization sat down and did the math to figure out massive difference that faith groups make in helping the homeless. We’re not talking one religion ghost here; we’re talking about a whole city’s worth. Here’s a project that wrote up homeless peoples’ pets and included pieces in Spanish and Chinese, yet did not devote space to the one group that’s done the most throughout history to help.

This absence of religion from San Francisco's public square is not new. My colleague Jim Davis and I have written quite a bit about how California is working overtime to pass a bill that would make it next to impossible for Christian colleges (not to mention Jewish or Muslim ones)in the state to carry out their mission. And remember how the state was a focus for a Supreme Court case aimed at getting Christian groups ejected from secular campuses. Has anyone considered how those despised religious groups, colleges and individuals have an odd way of founding and staffing agencies and charities that help the poor? And if efforts to make education a religion-free zone in the Golden State succeed, who will replace the graduates of the social work and social justice programs at these universities who feel called by God to work on the streets? The state university system? I don't think so. 

So we're back at the same questions we often ask here. Were these media outlets too ignorant to know about the role religion plays in helping the homeless or did they not care? If it's the first reason, that's frustrating. If it's the second, that's frightening.

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