The line wound around the block, as strangers and friends made small talk while waiting more than an hour for a hot meal. It was an eclectic group – the disheveled substance abuser, the out-of-work dot-commer, the out-of-state transplant stunned by rent sticker shock and the lost veteran battling mental illness.
They are regular guests at San Francisco’s St. Anthony’s Dining Room, where more than 2600 hot meals are served each day. On April 13, 33 juniors participated in Urban Plunge, an emotional day of helping those in need in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. One group knocked on the doors of run-down single room occupancies (SROs) and delivered Meals that Heal. Another team sorted donated clothing. Some students rolled up their sleeves and served hot meals. A final group danced the Macarena and sang karaoke with senior citizens in the adult day program.
“Don’t ever get old and don’t ever just exist,” an elderly grandmother said to a Padre at the adult day center.
The littered Tenderloin streets are crowded, yet there is a sense of community amidst the poor conditions. Neighbors greet each other. Attitudes range from negative talks of revenge and blame to positive words of wisdom. “We were all born a gift,” reads a sign in the lobby of the Empress Hotel on Eddy Street. A memorable quote of the day was from a homeless man eating a piping hot plate of curry: “Don’t let anyone take your peace.”
The population density in the Tenderloin is greater than that of Calcutta. There are 18,000 people with a Tenderloin address and an additional 15,000 who are homeless in San Francisco.
“Jesus implores us to encounter those who are deemed outcasts in our society,” noted Campus Ministry Director Kyle Lierk. “The mission of the Junior Urban Plunge is to put our faith into action. This thrust is fueled by the “preferential option for the poor” Catholic social teaching principle. We know that our world is only as healthy as its weakest members. By building relationships with the people of the Tenderloin, we help to change their lives while our lives are radically changed.
“We can no longer hold preconceived notions of the poor,” he added. “While many of us in the Serra High School community have been blessed with certain comforts, others do not know the same privilege. We have an opportunity to step outside our comfort zones and deepen our understanding of a faith that does justice.”
All juniors are required to attend the Urban Plunge with their Theology classes. There are eight days scheduled throughout the school year. Last Tuesday, Padres were asked to share what lifted their hearts and what broke them. As they heard the stories of those in need, Padres treated their guests with compassion, dignity and respect.
“You could see that people were trying to survive by selling anything,” noted junior John Vincent. “We saw people selling drugs, toys, teddy bears, cigarettes – you name it. It’s a different world out there. Our group tried to make a difference by saying ‘Have a good day’ and ‘How are you doing?’ A simple ‘hello’ can brighten their day and change their perspective.”
Anthony Santo delivered food to people in neglected SROs. Some living conditions were worse than others. In one building, the building manager sat at a desk behind bars.
“I was scared at first,” Santo admitted. “There was such a bad odor. Some people were mumbling. It really taught me never to take anything for granted. Many people in our society stay away from these people and avoid eye contact. I always want to show that I care for them and let them know that they are valued by our society. We are so lucky to attend a school where caring for the less fortunate is an important lesson.”
At the end of the day, Padres listened to the story of a recovering drug lord – a young man who at one point ran the streets of Richmond. He outlined the destructive path of drug addiction and pointed out that it often takes only one hit to become addicted and dependent on the lifestyle.
“The whole day was pretty intense,” said junior Juan Rodriguez. “I was amazed by how people survive with so little. At first I felt depressed to see people struggling so much, but I also felt proud to be making a difference and hopeful that the people in the Tenderloin will have a better tomorrow.”