Until the pandemic closed the doors in March, Gonzalo Guoron Tzian, 52, was a hospitality monitor with the Sacred Sleep Program for unhoused people at St. John’s The Evangelist Episcopal Church on 15th Street at Julian.
He arrived every morning at 5:45 a.m., threw open the church doors at 6 a.m., and welcomed 50 to 90 tired souls, up all night in the cold and the madness, to sleep safely in the pews till early afternoon.
“My best moments are welcoming everyone in: ‘HELLO, GOOD MORNING, COME IN, HAVE A REST, HAVE SOME FOOD,’ and I call them by their names. Many prefer their nicknames, so I learned those!
“We have Chinese, Latino, Black and White. We even have Mayans from Guatemala, like me! We have old and young. Very old and very young. LGBTQ. Men, women. I put out mattresses on the pews, I make fresh coffee, I cut up the donated bread and pastries, I distribute hygiene kits, I make everyone feel comfortable in the sanctuary.”
Guoron hadn’t had much success overcoming his PTSD and depression until he began working as a bilingual peer counselor with the homeless, many of them suffering from similar maladies.
He was born into a family that has deep roots in the Mayan community of Guatemala. He speaks his native Mayan Kaqchikel, Spanish and English, and he loves teaching Kaqchikel.
He’d been a human rights activist and community organizer in his native Guatemala until, in 2003, a close colleague in his organization was assassinated and he had to flee in 2008, leaving behind two small daughters and his wife.
He made his way to San Francisco in 2010 and lived, as he puts it, “from street to shelter, from street to shelter, sometimes from street to SRO to shelter, sometimes from street to another street. From street to car. From car to shelter. You know the shelter system: You only get a bed for three months; then you are out.”
Guoron, who has twinkling eyes and a cheery and warmly gregarious demeanor that shows no trace of darkness, always speaks with high energy and volume (“HOLA, HOLA, HOLA!” he greets me). He smiles easily. He worked two jobs most of those homeless years, as a kitchen assistant on the Hornblower Cruises, and as a janitor at Nordstrom’s.
He drank a bit. OK, more than a bit. He learned English. He saw a therapist and took medicine. And he kept looking for a way to return to the meaningful work that had been his life in Guatemala.
Then, in fall 2015, he was accepted into the one-semester S.F. State University/RAMS course to become a Peer Mental Health Specialist. The course was designed to train people with lived experience in trauma, addiction, PTSD and other mental health diagnoses to work in community-based organizations and on the streets as frontline workers. With both bilingual and street survival skills, Guoron was quickly recognized as highly valuable in his new field.
“What the course gave me, most of all: I learned to manage my own stress. I learned to deal with it, to calm it. I was able to stop all medicines. I learned by sharing stories with my fellow students, and I learned to be more responsible to myself: to eat regularly, to exercise, to keep going to AA meetings. This is what helped me to defeat the anxiety.”
He ran harm-reduction groups. He learned de-escalation techniques.
And he found his place, working first as an outreach worker with the Mission SRO Collaborative, then with the Sacred Sleep Program. His work gave him the confidence to reconnect to his family, and he began calling his 90-year old mom in Tectan, Guatemala, on Skype. Then he reached out to his daughters. Last year, he went home for Christmas. “It was so much happiness!!! I felt the tenderness and harmony of being with my family after so much time gone by.”
Guoron knew the doors at St. John’s had to close when the shelter-in-place order came down in March. He got tested. He got unemployment. At first, he stayed in and read a lot, where he lives in the Excelsior.
“I went to Target and bought books on science, on American history and biology. I decided to study. I just went out to get food and do laundry. At first. I kept hoping we would re-open.”
Last week, after five months, his boss called him and eight other workers, and said there was no date to come back. He decided to get tested again, went down to 24th Street BART, then embarked on a search. He’d been wondering where his former guests were finding themselves, and he went looking.
“So I go out to Target – yes, I really like Target!– near Fourth and Mission, I saw some of our guests there around Mission and Market. Near 4th Street. I said, ‘WHAT A JOY TO SEE YOU GUYS’, they looked RESTED, they looked GOOD, they looked CLEAN! I could see they had slept well, and before, well, they always looked exhausted. So, I asked, what happened? They told me they have been staying in a hotel: they change our sheets once a week they told me, they give us laundry bags to throw our clothes in and do our laundry, and they only let us stay ONE PERSON in ONE ROOM.” Guoron pauses and laughs.
“Some of them are even in the Marriott, I didn’t believe it, but they look soooooo goood. It’s an enormous irony that it took such a thing, a pandemic, a crisis, for them to get a dignified room, a dignified place to sleep with normal human conditions. I asked them, ‘what are you going to do when this ends, and you have to leave?’ ‘Guess we are going to have to get a job,’ is what a few told me! And we all laughed and joked around, behind our masks. WOW, I didn’t expect how HEALTHY they looked!”
But other former guests are not at the Marriott. Guoron walked home through the Mission.
“I see them outside the closed shelter, the Santa Ana on Dolores Street, the Marta y Maria near Capp, ‘when can we go back to the church?’ they ask me.”
Guoron stops to take in the contradictions and bows his head, “How are some at the Marriott and some on the street outside the closed Santa Ana? You know, I am 52 years old, I have lived a lot already, I, what I want to do now, I want to be a volunteer participant for the coronavirus vaccine trials, that’s what I want. I am not working, but I need to do something for my conscience. This is what I will look for.”
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