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SVdP of San Mateo: Helping those on the streets with ‘basic survival’

December 17, 2015
Valerie Schmalz

The warmer than average Pacific Ocean temperatures of El Nino are predicted to cause high rainfall in Southern California – and forecasters say it may also come to the San Francisco Bay Area, where already a spate of heavy rains have hit in the past week.

But National Weather Service forecasts aside, one thing is sure – those living on the streets and “precariously housed” will continue to need a helping hand, particularly in the winter months.

In San Mateo County, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of San Mateo is on the front lines, operating three homeless help centers in South San Francisco, San Mateo, and Redwood City. “On a daily basis, we provide basic survival help,” said Lorraine Moriarty, executive director. In case of a disaster, the SVDP centers are part of the San Mateo County disaster relief plan, she said.

“With El Nino, we are trying to gear up in such a way we can give folks a little extra,” Moriarty said. “In this wet weather, it is feet and hands which are the first to suffer, particularly feet.”

“People often have less than sturdy shoes in the wet weather,” Moriarty said, and feet that stay wet quickly develop troubles. Care kits handed out by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of San Mateo fit in a gallon Ziploc bag because it has to be easily carried. A pair of warm socks, Band-Aids, emergency silver blankets, even a stick of chocolate are important items, Moriarty said. The Society also gives out warm sleeping bags.

“What Pope Francis is talking about with these field hospitals – we are trying with our homeless help centers to be those field hospitals,” Moriarty said, referencing an image that Pope Francis returns to over and over again.

For example, In a May 2 homily, Pope Francis said, “This is the mission of the church: the church that heals, that cares. I sometimes describe the church as a field hospital. True, there are many wounded, how many wounded! How many people who need their wounds to be healed! This is the mission of the church: to heal the wounded hearts, to open doors, to free [people], to say that God is good, God forgives all, that God is our father, God is tender, that God is always waiting for us.”

That is the mission of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Moriarty said.

“First to be loved unconditionally and as a result of the encounter and accompaniment to look at what their needs are, mitigate the suffering, help carry the load of suffering,” Moriarty said. “So many people have such a load of suffering they are carrying.”

“There but by the grace of God go I,” said Moriarty. “Everything is gift” from God.

The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul was founded in Paris in 1833 by a young French student, Frederic Ozanam, to confront his city’s devastating poverty. Inspired by St. Vincent de Paul, a 17th-century French priest who had an untiring commitment to serving the poor, Ozanam’s mission was to help the needy on a one-to-one basis and “accomplish through charity what justice alone cannot do.”

Today, the society is a network of charity in 142 countries. The first San Mateo County St. Vincent de Paul conference was founded in 1931 at Holy Angels Parish in Colma.

The San Mateo St. Vincent de Paul Society has 32 parish based conferences, and works closely with schools and many corporations and other non-profits as well as the county and city governments of San Mateo County. Among its ministries, it operates five retail stores in San Mateo County, is involved in restorative justice, offers a holistic re-entry program for previously incarcerated women at SVdP’s Catherine Center, provides food, clothing and rent assistance to the precariously housed through SVdP’s Peninsula Family Resource Center and the three homeless help centers.

The support of the Catholic schools is a particularly important piece, Moriarty said, and noted that schools and individuals can sign up online to volunteer in various ways, including helping out at the homeless help centers.

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