S.F. religious leaders blast Jordans Matrix program

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Rabbi Alan Lew doesn't mince words when it comes to San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan's Matrix program.

It's "politically dangerous and psychologically foolish," Lew said. "Spiritually, it is an absolute catastrophe."

Though a recent poll showed more than half of San Franciscans support Matrix, Lew is not alone among local clergy in condemning Jordan's response to homelessness. Thursday of last week, the rabbi of San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom joined some 30 religious leaders in Golden Gate Park to protest Jordan's decision to close the park between midnight and 5 a.m. to prevent the homeless from sleeping there.

The event, organized by Religious Witness with Homeless People, began at 9 p.m. with a somber prayer service at Stanyan and Waller streets attended by some 150 people. Two hours later, about 30 Christian, Buddhist and Muslim leaders, along with a group of homeless people, settled in to sleep for the night.

While the group risked arrest by defying the new curfew, the police took no action against them.

"The fact that they didn't arrest us is a clear indication that Matrix is selectively enforced against homeless people," said Sister Bernie Galvin, director of Religious Witness.

"Homeless people are routinely arrested for sleeping in the park, breaking curfew. We violated all of those unjust laws and we did not get arrested."

Fred Blum, past president of the American Jewish Congress, stayed at the event until 2 a.m. along with several representatives from the organization. He called the experience "eye-opening."

"It was very nice to be able to go home at 2 a.m. to a warm bed and a nice house," he said. "I don't see how these people can remain in the streets and maintain any degree of normalcy and sanity. No one remains homeless because they want to."

Blum admitted that standing outside in the cold after midnight wasn't his idea of an ideal Thursday night. But attending the protest was something he felt compelled to do.

"I would have been there as an individual, but I think it was important that I was there representing [the American Jewish] Congress," he said.

"It's important that from an organizational perspective, the Jewish community be represented. For whatever reason, Jews are not over-represented [on] poverty issues."

Last Thursday's event, however, did see a comparatively heavy Jewish presence. Members of Beth Sholom attended the service, as did members of San Francisco's Or Shalom Jewish Community. At least one member of the city's Congregation Emanu-El came as well.

Galvin speculated that the high Jewish turnout may have been because the protest took place the day after Yom Kippur, a holiday focusing on self-improvement and betterment of the world. Lew, president of the Northern California Board of Rabbis, requested the gathering be after the holy day because it provided an opportunity for social action.

Earlier in the day, religious leaders were among those who criticized Matrix at a public hearing held before the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission. While the mayor and police officials pointed to vagrants in the park as a serious threat to public safety, others accused the mayor of exploiting the homeless for political purposes.

Despite such criticism, Jordan is standing firmly behind Matrix.

"The mayor is still committed to the Matrix program," said Jordan spokesperson Staci Walters. "We see it as way to improve life on our streets and also to help people who cannot help themselves."

Opponents of Matrix, however, argue that there is simply not enough help for the homeless. According to the city's own survey, there are more than 12,000 homeless people for 1,400 shelter beds and only 700 hotel rooms for the approximately 3,000 homeless people receiving general assistance.

Even so, Walters said that the vast majority of homeless do not avail themselves of city services. "As a city, we cannot force them into a shelter," she said.

As for the Golden Gate Park curfew, "we need to establish an acceptable standard of behavior and make sure that our parks are safe and clean," she said.

Galvin, however, views the price for that safety as too high. "The city may have indeed gained a cleaner park," she told the panel last week, "but in so doing, we have lost a little more of our soul."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.