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San Francisco’s homeless people feel too guilty to call loved ones at Christmas

A person sits on the ground right next to tents on the street.
Monde Dustamante, who is homeless, poses for a photo next to his homeless encampment in San Francisco on Thursday,. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

San Francisco’s homeless people say living on the streets during Christmastime is a period often spent racked with guilt, with the thought of calling loved ones too difficult to bear.

Many unhoused people told The Standard their Christmas wish was to see their families. Others said they wanted a roof over their heads—or at least fresh clothes and a tarp to stay dry. Some said all they wanted was to be treated nicely by others.

While the city’s homelessness nonprofits say they receive an influx of donations and volunteers around Christmas, such efforts only do so much to ease the pain of living on the streets.

READ MORE: Garden Planters To Deter Homeless Encampments Pop Up in Downtown San Francisco

“A lot of folks out here are pretty estranged from their family,” said Billie Wood, a homeless woman living in a tent near Potrero Hill. “I feel a lot of guilt. … It gets hard to touch base.”

Monde Dustamante, a 10-year San Francisco homeless veteran, said his Christmas wish is for members of the public to stop harassing him. He said he’s experienced increased anger from passing pedestrians this year. He hopes the holidays soften the ridicule.

“They used to walk by and maybe leave a couple of dollars,” Dustamante said. “Now they walk by and say, ‘Get off the street.’”

A man sits on a sidewalk near a makeshift tent, suggesting urban homelessness.
Monde Dustamante, who is homeless, stands by his homeless encampment in San Francisco on Thursday. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

Dustamante said the holidays are a particularly tough time for him because his daughter, who died in a car crash at age 17, was born on Thanksgiving. He said he hung a Santa hat on the fence next to his tent to humanize himself to the public.

“I figured I’d do a little something to make them realize we’re just like them,” he said. 

Jacqui Berlinn, whose son Corey Sylvester lives on San Francisco’s streets, told The Standard she still hangs a stocking for her son every Christmas—though he never shows up or calls. Berlinn, a member of the advocacy group Mothers Against Drug Addiction and Deaths, said her son usually calls a few days after Christmas, she assumes because he doesn’t want to dampen the holiday spirit. 

She said her Christmas wish was that her son would be institutionalized long enough to become sober, or that he would visit her for the holidays. 

“I don’t fill the stocking with anything but my prayers and my hopes and my dreams for him,” Berlinn said. “He’s never there to open it, and that is hard. … I always hope he will call.”

A man and woman sit on a bench, holding each other.
Jacqui Berlinn and her son Corey Sylvester pose together during Thanksgiving 2017, the last holiday the two spent together before Sylvester's addiction took hold and he began living on San Francisco's streets. | Source: Courtesy Jacqui Berlinn

‘A Time of Joy and a Time of Loss’

The San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing said many of the city’s homelessness nonprofits throw parties and dinners for unhoused people. The city has also opened 80 additional shelter beds at St. Mary’s Cathedral as part of its winter shelter program.

St. Anthony’s, a social service nonprofit in the Tenderloin, expects to hand out 1,500 meals on Christmas Day. Glide Memorial Church says it’s prepared to hand out over 2,000 Christmas gifts and thousands of pounds of meat donated from the House of Prime Rib to anyone who shows up in need at their doorstep. 

However, Sally Haims, a spokesperson for St. Anthony’s, said the charity still needs volunteers after the holidays, when enthusiasm for alms giving runs dry. If you want to volunteer, you can sign up here.

Another nonprofit, Urban Angels SF, still needed more Christmas gifts for homeless children. As of Wednesday, it remained 100 gifts shy of meeting the demand. You can donate here.

There were 238 homeless families, including 363 children and 323 adults, on a waiting list to enter family homeless shelters in the city as of Dec. 7. Over 440 individuals were waiting for access to one of the city’s dormitory-style shelters as of Wednesday afternoon, according to city data. 

Hope Kamer, director of public policy for Compass Family Services, said the holidays are a particularly tough time for homeless families due to school closures. 

People stand in a line outside Glide Memorial Church.
People line up for a free meal at Glide Memorial Church, which will serve prime rib to people in need on Christmas Eve. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Kamer said many homeless parents rely on schools to feed and take care of their children during the day.

But the other side of the coin, she said, is that the holidays also bring an influx of donations and volunteers to local nonprofits, allowing the organizations to better serve their clients. Karl Robillard, a spokesperson for Glide Memorial Church, said his nonprofit receives two-thirds of their annual donations during the holidays. 

“It’s a time of joy and a time of loss,” Kamer said. “There’s this intense social pressure for homeless parents to create normative experiences for their kids year-round. During the holidays, that stress intensifies.” 

David Arueda, a homeless father living in his van in the SoMa neighborhood, said he’s been stockpiling gifts for his estranged son in Oakland. However, he’s unsure if he’ll be able to visit him as he’s under the custody of his mother. 

Arueda said he lost his job as a roofer in Concord after the van he was living in broke down. He now lives in the broken-down van. He hasn’t noticed an influx of services as Christmas approaches, saying he was turned away from taking a shower at a local nonprofit earlier in the week. 

“They give you food, but that’s to make themselves feel better,” Arueda said. “To be honest, what I want for Christmas is housing.”

David Sjostedt can be reached at