Catholic Worker Hospitality House of San Bruno - Providing meals and shelter in San Bruno, California.

February Appeal

by Ella Chatfield-Stiehler

Dear Friends,

This time last year I was sure we were going to be closing our homeless shelter in the near future due to it no longer being needed.  Government efforts to house long-term homeless folks in our county combined with the imminent opening of a large new Navigation Center in Redwood City for the homeless with shelter and wrap-around services led me to believe that, by
the end of the year, our little homeless shelter would no longer be needed.

For most of the 26 years we have been operating our homeless shelter at Catholic Worker Hospitality House we were regularly inundated with many more people requesting shelter space than we had availability.  It has always been hard turning away more people than we accept.  Covid changed all that as there was a concerted effort by the government to prevent the spread of Covid by housing homeless people in local motels.  Almost overnight we saw a large drop in the number of people eating at our dining room and seeking shelter.

Further lessening the demand on our shelter has been San Mateo County’s commitment over the past few years to actively creating more permanent affordable housing for long-term homeless individuals. It has been so nice to see people getting housed who I thought would never get housing. We have been doing our part by providing a wide range of household goods to furnish their apartments once they move in.  It’s always the high point of my day, week, month when I help to furnish the apartment of a former guest and see how happy and thankful they are.  After years of being homeless, with the resulting precarity and humiliations, they now have the security and dignity of their own home.  Beautiful!

Now a year later, I have been proven wrong regarding the imminent demise of our little homeless shelter. The numbers of people seeking shelter has admittedly reduced, but we are still regularly at capacity, especially during the wet and cold season, and routinely, regrettably, turn people away due to lack of space. Clearly, our shelter is still a valued asset for those in
need in our community.

One thing we have noticed lately is the people now seeking to stay at our shelter are a more challenging population. In the past we had the luxury of cherry picking who we thought would be the easiest, least difficult guests. But that is no longer the case.  This makes sense as most of the “easy” homeless population are getting housed, leaving these “more challenging” people for us to serve.  Those who can complete a cumbersome and overly bureaucratic application process get housing, those who can’t—or won’t—don’t get housing.  What makes someone “more challenging” to have as a guest in our shelter?  It can be mental illness or sub- stance abuse or being just plain cantankerous or a combination of the three.  These conditions vary on a spectrum from one individual to another and aren’t always initially recognizable. These folks, while definitely in need of our services, can be very challenging to serve as their behavior is often disruptive to the other guests.  It is so frustrating seeing folks miss out on the possibility of obtaining permanent affordable housing with a resultant better quality of life because they are unable or unwilling to work the process. I want to scream out: “If you would just follow their process you WILL get permanent housing.”  I think of Greg who fits this category perfectly.  He either couldn’t or wouldn’t follow the process and ended up dying in his campsite.  Might he have lived longer if housed?

Another reason we have seen for the continued operation of our shelter is that the county is now rigorously enforcing a policy of no services to people who have not been verifiable residents of the county for less than 90 days.  At Catholic Worker Hospitality House we do not have that policy.  There is no lengthy verification process to determine eligibility for our shelter or dining room. We see people in need and react immediately, as best we can. Our extreme anti-bureaucratic stance, and refusal to accept government funding, means we serve people immediately.

While the rationale behind the county’s policy is understandable, it does leave some people in a very difficult situation.  We have had several shelter guests lately who could only stay at our place because they were new to the area. In December we had a man from Salinas stay with us for a couple of nights who had been dropped off in the area and spoke no English. What was he to do? What were we to do? We made space for him.  We are often the way station where people can stay until they have the requisite residency status to qualify for county run or funded facilities. We will be here to continue meeting that need.  So, the good news is, we will not be closing our shelter. But I guess the bad news is we will not be closing our shelter.  Nothing would make us happier than to close our shelter because there was no longer a need for it. Sadly, I don’t see that happening in the near future.

While Catholic Workers have historically made a career out of justifiably criticizing the government for a variety of reasons, not the least its not prioritizing the creation of affordable housing, we must now applaud all levels of government for devoting resources to providing permanent affordable housing to those most in need in our community. It is definitely making a difference in the lives of those we serve.  That said, I did read in the paper recently that upcoming state budget cuts will disproportionately affect the poorest residents by reducing funds for affordable housing, no surprise there.

There are still people, and probably always will be, who are in crisis or relocating and need the services our shelter provides.  We are committed to keeping our shelter open for these folks.  And whether housed or homeless there is a sizable number of people who need the resources our dining room provides.  We are committed to keeping our dining room open for these folks.  We are able to follow through on these commitments through your generous support.  We are thankful for your past support and plead for your continued generosity to enable us to continue serving those in need in our community.


In Christ’s Peace,

Peter Stiehler
For all of us at
Catholic Worker
Hospitality House