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In Service of the Homeless

by Stephanie Hiller

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"The chief cause of homelessness is lack of housing. San Francisco is first in the nation for shortage of housing," says Sister Bernie Galvin from her office for the Religious Witness with Homeless People. For years, she has championed the fight to preserve Wherry Housing in the Presidio.


A History of Wherry Housing

Named after Congressman Wherry, who sponsored legislation for the construction of these 2-4 bedroom units built for military families after WWII, the buildings weren't deemed historically significant. When the Presidio was initially given National Park status, the Park Service began making preparations to tear down the $100 million cluster of these Wherry units by removing all the kitchen appliances. But Galvin's assertion that these buildings remain in respectable condition has been proven by their current assignment as student housing. The Trust has rented the apartments in order to pay the cost of demolishing them in two or three years. At a projected cost of $16 million, the tab for demolishing the buildings will be three times the cost of upgrading them, she says. "We immediately launched a major campaign to prevent the demolition of Wherry Housing. Through our demonstrations and our outreach in the community during two years, we put this issue on the front burner of this community."

The result was the landslide passage of Proposition L last June, an initative demanding that unless the Presidio make a full range of housing available to all San Franciscans, the city will refuse to make requested improvements to municipal transportation to the park. The proposition, which received the support of the mayor and seven of the city's eight supervisors, is not legally binding. But the Board of Supervisors will determine how it will implement the public will as expressed by some 90,000 voters. In the meantime, Sister Bernie the proposition is forcing the Trust to enter into negotiations with the city, something it has been reluctant to do on the grounds that the stunning 1400 acre property is federally owned.

Sister Bernie is no stranger to activism on behalf of the poor. After teaching high school for 17 years in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, she organized sugar cane and mill workers in South Louisiana, and in 1980 she went "undercover" to work in a J. P. Stevens cotton mill in North Carolina to gain first-hand experience of Appalachian textile workers, whom she then organized in collaboration with the union. In the late 80s, she organized nursing homes in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. Now she has made it her business to correct the myths and address the fear that citizens feel when they hear the word "homeless." "Homeless families are the fastest growing segment of the homeless community," she points out. "It is not because people are morally degenerate that they become homeless. These are the people who are most vulnerable, who suffer the most from the inequities of our society. Caught in those social conditions, they begin to deteriorate."

What about the apprehension that providing low income housing in the Presidio will turn that fine property into a slum? Sister Bernie can explode that myth as well. She refers to three projects run by the Mercy Housing Program in the Tenderloin, where supportive services like job search, after school childcare and English classes help low income families get on their feet. "Police say they never have to go there."

Sister Bernie's complaint is that the Presidio Trust has failed to make true its mandate to speak openly with the community about its plans. In her testimony at the second public meeting of the Trust in April, 1998, she charged that the Trust's control of information "is so tight that our verbal and written requests for information either go completely unanswered or your response is so evasive as to be meaningless." She contends that "the Presidio Trust has not been handed a blueprint that tells them to go build a city within a city. They were handed a jewel, a city already built. They have officers' housing that they can put on the open market. We're saying they must include San Franciscans of all economic levels, and we certainly would not exclude the poor." If left to its own devices, Galvin charges, the Trust will fulfill its "ultimate purpose to commercialize that national park." With the ocean views available from Wherry Housing, "I'm sure they'll have a condominium there."

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Albion Monitor December 28, 1999 (

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