Noe Valley Voice December-January 1999-2000

Church Rushes to Set Up Winter Shelter for Gay Youth

Homeless Would Be Ferried to Noe Valley from the Castro

By Mark Robinson

With the rainy season at hand, a Noe Valley pastor and his congregation are scrambling to create a city-funded shelter for homeless gay youth by the middle of December.

The effort is backed by mayoral candidate Tom Ammiano, who is shepherding the proposal through the Board of Supervisors.

The push to open the 15-bed shelter at the Golden Gate Metropolitan Community Church at 27th and Church streets came in early November after a citizens' committee in the Castro rejected a proposal for a similar shelter at 2500 Market St.

The Noe Valley plan, which was presented to a handful of residents and supporters at a Nov. 16 meeting at the church, envisions homeless people between the ages of 18 and 23 being transported by van from the Castro to the Noe Valley church each evening at 9:30. They would spend the night in the church, have breakfast there, and then be driven back to the Castro at 9:00 the next morning. Organizers hope the shelter will operate until May.

"We're trying to break the cycle of drugs, alcohol, and prostitution," Rev. Jim Mitulski told the dozen or so residents who attended the Nov. 16 meeting. "We want to have them in a wholesome environment. This is the kind of neighborhood we want to integrate them into."

Without the shelter, Mitulski said, the youth would spend the winter months sleeping in doorways, alleys, and parks in the Castro and around the city. Or they might seek refuge in a large, anonymous homeless shelter, where they could be harassed or assaulted, he said.

Mitulski, senior pastor of the Castro branch of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) and interim pastor of the small Noe Valley congregation, acknowledged that the shelter will be able to serve only a tiny portion of the estimated 2,000 young gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered homeless youth in the city. But space for 15 beds is better than nothing, he said. "Warehousing them in the Tenderloin is not a good idea."

He added that the shelter will not turn away homeless youth who are not gay, but that its main target is the gay population, presumed to be particularly at risk.

Neighbors who attended the meeting, or who learned about the shelter later, said the proposal raises concerns about noise, security, and crime. The activities at the small church -- religious services, 12-step meetings, deliveries -- already cause traffic, trash, loitering, and other problems, said Enrique Ovando, whose house fronts the church building at 1508 Church St.

"I have enough trouble dealing with what goes on now," Ovando told Mitulski during the meeting. "Don't move forward on this shelter plan until these problems are resolved."

Ovando also voiced concerns about the prospective clients of the shelter, saying that there was little organizers could do to keep the people who slept there inside the church building. The prospect of homeless youth lingering outside the shelter, he said, made him worry for the safety of his children, who are 2 and 4. "You can't control the activities of these people," he said. "If they want to leave, they'll leave."

Mitulski said it was true that the over-night clients couldn't be forced to stay put. But he noted that the shelter plan calls for pre-screening them before they board vans in the Castro. They will be told they are to stay inside the church at all times, and since they will be looking for a place to rest, eat, and retreat from the street, they are likely to stick to that rule, he said.

As for the existing problems at the church, Mitulski said he was learning about them for the first time that night and would take measures to address the parking, noise, and other nuisances. "But not all of these problems were caused by the church," he said. "And we can't solve all of them."

The shelter is to be run by the Ark of Refuge, a San Francisco nonprofit organization that has administered two similar shelter programs in the city, including one at the Eureka Valley Recreation Center. "We won't be reinventing the wheel," said Eric Politzer, an Ark of Refuge consultant helping to set up the program.

Strict rules of operation should minimize the shelter's impact on residents, Po-
litzer said. The program will hire two people to staff the facility each night. Drugs, alcohol, and tobacco will not be allowed. No "drop-in" clients will be permitted, which should prevent homeless people from gathering at the church, he said.

Those precautions were reassuring to Homer Hobi, who lives on 27th Street, less than a block from the church. "It sounds like it's going to be a pretty much invisible program." He added that he approved of the project's goals.

"The urgency of getting this started takes precedence over some of the potential problems," he said.

Another neighbor, Mia Hatakeyama, said she too approves of the idea of giving a helping hand to young people in need of shelter. But she admitted being frightened as well. "I don't want to be one of those people who says, 'Not in my back yard,'" she said. "But some of these concerns have to be addressed."

She wanted to know whether security guards would be hired to ensure safety. Politzer said guards might be hired if the five-month budget, estimated at about $115,000, could accommodate it.

Asked why the church doesn't open a shelter in the Castro MCC, Mitulski said the facilities (at 150 Eureka St.) are already overbooked and used by more than 50 groups and programs. The Golden Gate MCC, on the other hand, is underutilized, he said, and has a kitchen, a shower, and available space for beds.

Mitulski and other church members said they were moving quickly to create the Noe Valley program after their proposal to set up a shelter at 2500 Market St. near 17th was shot down by the Community Action Council, a Castro neighborhood organization formed to assess youth homelessness in that neighborhood.

The council, which had been considering options for 2500 Market since last summer, decided to adopt an alternative shelter plan that would create longer-term "transitional housing" at the site. Under that plan, homeless youth from the Castro would commit to a 90-day stay during which they would get substance-abuse and job counseling designed to help them get off the street permanently.

The council's decision, which came in early November, meant that the need for temporary shelter would go unmet without quick action, said Tawnee Walling, Mitulski's assistant. "Admittedly, we gave the [Noe Valley] residents short notice," she said. "But we just found out that we had to move ahead on this."Neighborhood organizations haven't assessed the church's proposal, but at least one -- the Upper Noe Neighbors -- plans to meet with Mitulski in December to learn more about the plan.

"It would be nice for this neighborhood to be able to help -- if it didn't create a negative impact," said Vicki Rosen, the group's president, who lives a few blocks away from the church herself. "We don't want to be 'Nimbys,' but if there are problems, they have to be addressed."

Mitulski will discuss the proposal at a meeting of the Upper Noe Neighbors on Thursday, Dec. 9 (the meeting will be held at Upper Noe Recreation Center, Day and Sanchez streets, at 7:30 p.m.).

A few days before, on Dec. 5, Mitulski will deliver a sermon titled "Why Christians Should Help the Homeless," at Golden Gate MCC's regular Sunday service at 10:30 a.m. He invites the neighborhood to attend, and also to stay for a second community meeting on the shelter plan at noon.

Mitulski says he is committed to hearing the residents' concerns. "We want to be good neighbors and we want to run a successful shelter," he said, "and part of being a good neighbor means having a minimal impact."