Noe Valley Voice May 2006

Church Seeks Funds for 'House of Sarah'

By Corrie M. Anders

A church that has quietly ministered in Noe Valley for four decades has launched a $5 million fundraising effort to build a multilevel addition that would provide temporary housing for homeless women and their children.

The ambitious proposal is the vision of the Church at San Francisco, the bright blue house of worship located at the corner of Church and 28th streets.

If the fundraising effort is successful, the church plans to start construction in 2009 and add three additional floors to its current one-story structure. The expansion would include 17 units--with each space able to accommodate a mother and two children.

The facility, to be known as the House of Sarah, would serve as a refuge for women who may have drifted into homelessness because of substance-abuse issues, lost jobs, or lost support of husbands or boyfriends. (Sarah was the biblical wife who was scorned for her early inability to bear a child.)

The women would live in the facility for six months to two years. During that time, they would receive drug and alcohol counseling and life-skills training designed to integrate them back into mainstream society.

The training would give the women the capability to handle things many people take for granted: how to apply for identification cards or driver's licenses, how to get social security cards and credit reports, how to dress for interviews and write a resume, and how to find an apartment and pay bills. The residents also would take twice-weekly self-esteem classes. Their children would be enrolled in public schools.

"It's all a part of integrating them back into society," says Rev. Joesiah Bell, 59, pastor of the nondenominational church.

Although homeless women could live at the church home for two years, Bell says he expects they would be back on their feet in less than that. "We're looking at six months to a year," he says.

The first phase of the House of Sarah effort is to raise $65,000 to pay for architectural plans and construction specifications. Bell says he expects the overall fundraising effort to take anywhere from 12 to 18 months, followed by up to two years for the permit approval process.

"So we have roughly about three years before we can stick a shovel in the ground," Bell says.

No official plans or permit requests have been filed with the city. But news of the proposal started to attract public attention last month when the church posted an architectural drawing of the proposed expansion on its front facade.

The rendering by Asian Neighborhood Design, a nonprofit corporation based in San Francisco, showed a contemporary-style addition sitting atop the building's familiar royal-blue base.

David Gluck, a 28th Street resident who lives two houses from the church, says he hopes the organizers will involve neighbors early in the process to address any concerns they might have about establishment of a homeless facility.

"I think the Noe Valley community is a very progressive community and would probably support the intention of what they're trying to accomplish," Gluck says.

The president of a local neighborhood association says the church's proposal has not progressed far enough for her group to take a position.

"It would be a pretty serious change to that corner, so I would expect there to be a need for a lot of public dialogue," says Vicki Rosen of Upper Noe Neighbors. "For now, we're doing a wait-and-see kind of thing."

Bell says the proposal is indeed in its formative stages, and that the church would welcome discourse with its neighbors. The church so far has gotten "mixed feedback" from nearby residents and businesses, Bell says, with some neighbors applauding the plan and others asking, "Why does it have to come here?"

Homeless women and children are currently rare on the streets of Noe Valley. But that could change, Bell says.

"Just because we're out here in Noe Valley doesn't mean we can stick our heads in the sand," Bell says. "The problem is coming to us, and I think we should be proactive."

Bell says the church has already devised strategies to prevent potential problems, such as people congregating outside the church or male friends of the women coming around and disturbing the tenants. He also welcomes the public's help.

"I want to invite people to come and work with us," says Bell. "If they see a problem, my door is always open."

The genesis for the House of Sarah came soon after Bell arrived from Seattle in 1996, as the church's new pastor. While working in a San Francisco neighborhood center, Bell says he discovered there were "plenty of programs for men, but hardly any programs for women, and especially for women and their children."

In his first year, an effort to set up a city homeless shelter ran into vehement opposition from local residents, and the idea was shelved. "I decided that being a new pastor, it wasn't going to be my battle cry," he says.

The need for housing assistance did not dissipate, however, says Bell, who has a master's degree in education and has worked extensively with underprivileged children. "There needs to be something for the women of our city. The majority of women on the street are not there because of drugs. It's because they lost their jobs or husbands, or their live-in boyfriends left. And they find themselves homeless."

Bell says the church has been a fixture at its present location since 1965--initially with a mostly African-American congregation that has given way today to parishioners who primarily are white or Latino. The church has an ongoing program of providing food and clothing for the needy, he says, and currently is collecting clothes for shipment to Kenya and El Salvador.

Previously called Holiness Temple in Christ, the Church at San Francisco can seat 300 people, Bell says. The size of the congregation is not known, however, because "we don't count our membership."

Bell says visitors can drop by 1596 Church Street or phone the church at 415-642-0302.