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In spite of COVID-19, ministry to homeless population continues at First Presbyterian Church of San Diego

One guest: ‘They’re always here for me’

by Gregg Brekke for the Presbyterian Foundation | Special to Presbyterian News Service

The homeless community in San Diego is accustomed to coming to First Presbyterian Church in each Sunday for a hot meal, as shown here in a photo from September 2019. Currently, the church is ministering by distributing boxed meals. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

SAN DIEGO — It’s anything but business as usual for guests and staff at the Ladle Fellowship, the homeless persons outreach ministry of First Presbyterian Church in San Diego. As cases of COVID-19 increase across the nation, volunteers and church staff are continuing to serve their neighbors in need.

The ministry, which feeds 200 to 300 people on Sunday afternoons and offers a Wednesday evening meal and Bible study, has had to change its approach to serving guests as precautionary measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“Instead of sit-down meals in the dining room, we’ve been distributing hot lunches. Same hour, same place — but outdoors,” said the Rev. Dr. Jerry Andrews, First Presbyterian Church’s senior pastor. “We’re encouraging safe distancing of people.”

Along with having guests move to safer spaces, they’re wrapping each meal in a printed devotion and distributing disinfectant wipes and drinks as part of the meal service. Although most volunteer groups have made the difficult decision not to send their people to assist with meals, Andrews says the ministry’s staff is able to provide the carry-out meals without the additional support.

The Presbyterian Foundation completed a video telling the story of First Presbyterian’s ministry with the homeless, which you can view here. The video was completed before the pandemic.

Providing services

What has changed is the many ways the ministry worked one-on-one with guests — praying with them, offering haircuts and basic medical services — all have all been curtailed in light of safe distancing guidelines.

“Our new model doesn’t take as much labor,” Andrews said. “They’re still giving us their prayer concerns and we’re praying for them. What hasn’t changed is how our homeless neighbors are always asking for prayer for their friends, often not themselves, who are in greater need.

“For the most part, our homeless neighbors are expressing gratitude, but they’re frightened.”

John Savidge, director of the Ladle Fellowship, said medical services are still being provided in neighborhoods and parks, doing triage work for injured persons and looking for those who may be sick with the flu or COVID-19 symptoms. And the church continues to operate its food pantry utilizing pre-packaged foods and updated sanitization practices.

Nationally, advocates for unhoused people are concerned that even in the absence of the coronavirus pandemic, the homeless population is two times more likely to be hospitalized in a given year, up to four times as likely to require critical care, and three times as likely to die from a hospitalization event than housed populations. Add to this a higher likelihood of pre-existing conditions and barriers to care, and it’s a crisis waiting to happen, according to Dr. Bechara Choucair, chief health officer at the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan Inc. and Hospitals.

“In reality, allowing people to live on the streets unsheltered in poor condition is not the right thing to do for our fellow human beings,” he said. “It’s is a threat to us all because it will allow the virus to continue to spread in the community while the rest of us are sheltering in place.”

Plans in the works for the homeless

San Diego city and county officials have been at work on a plan to provide greater social distancing for those who had been staying at the region’s shelters. Plans are under way to convert the San Diego Convention Center to a homeless shelter with greater room for social distancing in addition to providing many of the city’s unused hotel rooms for those who are in the greatest risk categories or in need of isolation.

Organizational partners such as San Diego County and the San Diego Rescue Mission have already adapted their practices to help serve homeless persons in the area. The county has deemed continued outreach to the homeless population a “critical service,” and it’s unlikely these services will be curtailed as long as they adhere to health and safety guidelines.

The Rescue Mission, located across the street from the church, has limited access to its building to students (long-term residents) and staff only. Bible studies, mentoring and chapel services led by church partner pastors have all been made virtual. They are also working with the city and county on efforts to provide appropriate housing solutions for short term shelter guests.

Because of the coronavirus, First Presbyterian Church in San Diego has adapted its ministry to people experiencing homelessness. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

Despite the drastic change to how the ministry operates, along with moving First Presbyterian Church’s services to all online, Andrews sees a ray of hope in how the crisis has motivated people to care for the unhoused population in San Diego.

“What the county and city are doing for the homeless community is good, better than it’s been in the 10 years I’ve been looking at it,” he said. “[What we’re continuing to do] doesn’t make us heroic; we will be as wise as serpents and gentle as doves in caring for our homeless neighbors and our staff.

“But it’s impossible to look someone in the eye and tell them to stay at home when they don’t have one.”

Gregg Brekke is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, photographer and videographer. Send comments on this article to Robyn Davis Sekula at

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

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