By Kat Callaway
The church looks like a cheerful place of worship, brightly colored and welcoming, right at home in the Mission. But you don’t really see how remarkable it is until you step inside.
The church has welcomed and serves its community, successfully housing each day a school, Mission Kids, its own church gatherings, and a union office. At night, it welcomes 57 men off the streets and into shelter. And since July 17, another 24 homeless people walk into this oasis from the street, each of whom self-identifies as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender (LGBT). This remarkable little church has opened its heart and space to house the first LGBT adult shelter in the United States.
The shelters—both the men’s and Jazzie’s Place—are run by the Dolores Street Community Services. The limited size of the church drives some of the routine: Wakeup is at 6 a.m. and everyone must leave by 6:45 a.m., with no breakfast served. In the evening, dinner is a perk, with two chefs preparing the meal at an off-site kitchen.
The renovation of the area housing the shelter took four long months. Initially, there had been talk of relocating the men’s shelter for this period but they toughed it out together. Two new bathrooms, each with a cubicle housing toilet and sink and outside the cubicle a shower stall, are one of the results of the renovation. Two more bathrooms are on the second floor, all four sporting a privacy curtain across the door opening them to the courtyard. One of these is designated for Jazzie’s Place.
Arriving around 9 p.m., one evening, one finds a peaceful, quiet, and surprisingly clean and neat common area. The effect is unexpected: Dinner is just eaten and the shelter is full with its 81 guests, most already retired to their room and bed to read or to catch up on some sleep.
Two rooms are dedicated to the men’s shelter, one to Jazzie’s Place. Twenty-four beds make twelve footprints on the clean, linoleum floor, each footprint representing two beds, one lower, one upper. The bunks are scattered among cubicle walls made of a plastic that is frosted for maximum privacy with minimum isolation. The walls are gray concrete when not painted or interrupted by windows, with two commemorative proclamations on the wall: one honoring Jazzie Collins, San Francisco activist, for whom Jazzie’s Place is named. The other is by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, declaring June 17 officially Jazzie’s Place Day in San Francisco. The guests proudly point these out, making sure visitors read both.
Staff work on small tables set in the room with the guests. Enrique talks to a young man about the man’s day, the laptop on which he was working ignored for the moment. It is clear that the staff are there for the benefit of each individual during their 90-day stay (one 30-day extension is also allowed).
Guests approach Enrique Roldan, Shelter Manager for the past five years, as he reflects on the first month of operation of Jazzie’s Place. Enrique reassures and welcomes them, making their question or issue first priority. It is an opportunity to listen to the types of things on the minds of the guests: One asks if she can retain case manager Yesenia Lacayo as her case manager when she leaves Jazzie’s Place. Enrique assures her that she may do so, and the guest leaves, relief apparent on her face. Her connection with Yesenia is visible. Other guests, different questions: Is a verification of homelessness available? Can assistance with the dental health plan be arranged? Each interruption a demonstration of the concern for the needs and respect for the individual held by each staff member for each guest.
Monitors Brittany Cook and Mayra Sanchez are both recent hires and have the occasional question for Enrique. But they need no help with sincere concern and caring for the guests. It is obvious in them both and I wonder how staff is chosen. It is obviously something done well.
Enrique shares his thoughts on what makes Jazzie’s Place so unique: He feels that small shelters, housing no more than 100 are best, empowering staff with the ability to individualize the treatment of each guest. While Enrique acknowledges that small has limitations, he feels these are far outweighed by benefits. Individual responses can be developed for each request. And if Jazzie’s Place is any indication, Enrique’s approach works.
I am surprised and pleased when Enrique leaves me alone in the room occupied by Jazzie’s Place. It’s a demonstration of his trust in me and in his guests. It’s a rare but welcomed gesture.
I ask the room at large if anyone wants to talk about Jazzie’s Place and their experiences here. The room has three areas, loosely defined by the frosted cubicle walls. The area for those self-identifying as female is quiet with a sleeping guest in each bed. The guests in the area for those identifying as male is quiet as well. I move on to the group of eight beds where those identifying as gender non-conforming. This group is up and eager to share.
Charles speaks up first. He talks about his fellow guests, particularly his friend, Michael, in the opposite bed, with whom he has become close. The two share a love of books and talk about what they are reading and trade their favorites.
“Other places,” he says, “it’s everyone for themselves, using their survival tactics. Here we can use all the resources available in the community and we get help with the resources. I get up and I like to stay busy. I walk to the Mission Resource Center in the morning and I can think about what I am going to do.”
Leroy is next. He was in the “Changing Room” when I arrived, curtain open, checking his look in the big mirror under the bright lights. I can confirm what the mirror must tell him: “Looking good!”
He tells me he has moved to San Francisco from Chicago and is in between positions at Macy’s where he worked in Chicago. His job here will begin in the fall. Till then, he resides at Jazzie’s Place.
“We all treat each other as family,” he tells me. With the manners and dignity of a gentleman he says “All shelters are a blessing. But this one is special. Staff is efficient but approachable. The kindness is sincere.” The group all voice agreement, more than one saying they feel safe. The others nod.
Leroy also shares his philosophy for life. “When down and out, one must look up. You must always find your own future.” The calm happiness I see on Leroy’s face says this is sound advice.
Michael speaks up. “I came here with the dirty clothes on my back. Since I came here, life has become so beautiful. Now I am clean, sober and motivated. I was anti-social when I arrived, staying alone and away from people. Now I am meeting people I want to get to know.”
His last words are delivered more quietly. “At the end of the day, I’ve got to get home.” Here the others jump in: “Mikey! He likes it!” echoing a line from a commercial popular years ago. Michael grins and almost blushes as the others laugh and give him a friendly arm across his shoulders.
In response to my request for any last comments, the guest agree: “Jazzie’s Place is for everyone, straight, gay, bi, transgender. Everyone is welcome and we all get along.”
When I am leaving, just ahead of the ten o’clock lights out, the guests invite me to come back and visit. I acknowledge the invitation and joke about the possibility of a series of articles, as a group we trade silly ideas and titles. They probably couldn’t tell how honored I was by their invitation and for sharing with me. I was grinning as I walked through the courtyard, the clear sky overhead, the two green trees and bushes filled with bright red flowers shadowing the tile mural on one wall.
As I left through the front gate, I looked back at them as a group and made a mental picture. Their faces showed so much happiness, such contentment that it, and the place that makes it possible, can only be reflected in a word used by Michael to describe Jazzie’s Place: