Bringing Winter Warmth and Blessings to Unhoused Individuals in San Francisco

Northwest  |  February 15, 2024
The volunteer team in San Francisco, Northern California, has cared for street residents for many years. They provide winter distribution and hot food to the street residents every year, bringing warmth to the street residents in the cold winter.
Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region’s volunteers in San Francisco have been caring for unhoused individuals for many years. Each year, they conduct a winter distribution and provide hot meals, bringing warmth to those experiencing homelessness during the cold winter months. Photo/Courtesy of Lulu Yin

Written by Lulu Yin and Christina Chang
Translated by H.B. Qin
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

“No problem, Tzu Chi volunteers in San Francisco can do it.” 

On a cold winter night at the end of 2023, Roxanne Buchwitz, a Tzu Chi San Francisco volunteer, received an urgent call from the San Francisco Interfaith Center. The anxious voice on the other end of the line explained that the organization scheduled to distribute hot meal dinners two days later, on December 30, had canceled and therefore asked if Tzu Chi volunteers could help fill in. Buchwitz immediately checked with volunteer Sue Tran for human resources support and instantly received a compassionate, understanding, and affirmative reply. 

On the evening of December 28, the Tzu Chi team gathered the required number of volunteers for the task in just a few hours, completed the event insurance and plan, and started the meal preparations early the following day.

After accepting the temporary assignment, Tzu Chi volunteers in San Francisco quickly mobilize human resources to prepare delicious vegetarian hot meals for distribution at a winter shelter for those experiencing homelessness. Photos/Lulu Yin

Winter Dinner Distributions

Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco has a winter shelter for unhoused individuals, and the San Francisco Interfaith Center invites several charity organizations, including Tzu Chi, to take turns serving a hot dinner there on Saturdays. On December 30, 2023, six Tzu Chi San Francisco volunteers went to St. Mary’s to offer hot meals to nearly 80 individuals experiencing homelessness. 

The volunteers had prepared the delicious Chinese dishes for the vegetarian meal the day before. The menu included fried rice, sweet and sour tofu, sautéed vegetables, spring rolls, and egg tarts. On the day of the dinner service, many of the people served said they enjoyed the hot meal immensely; many had seconds, and some even ate three or four plates of food!

Faced with a meal of tasty and steaming hot entrees and colorful vegetables, the dinner recipients thanked the Tzu Chi volunteers for bringing such warmth and care at the end of the year, their heartfelt efforts helping to alleviate the harshness of their homeless circumstances amid winter.

People at the winter shelter in Old St. Mary’s Cathedral enjoy a delicious vegetarian meal provided by Tzu Chi, touched by the kindness and efforts of our volunteers. Photos/Lulu Yin

Warmth for the Undocumented in a Foreign Land

Tzu Chi volunteer Lulu Yin noticed a young man with a neat and clean appearance who had first appeared in the homeless shelter at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral to receive dinner several days before Christmas, so she approached him and asked if he needed any help. After learning more about him, Yin realized he was from Latin America and an undocumented immigrant in the United States. This 29-year-old Colombian left his country on foot, transferred buses, and climbed over border fences on a trip that took two months as he crossed through many countries before entering the U.S. and finally settling in San Francisco.

Given his undocumented status, the young man was unable to work and earn money, so he became homeless and came to the shelter to eat. He mentioned that January 19, after the New Year, would be his 30th birthday. Yin immediately announced that Tzu Chi volunteers would distribute hot meals at the shelter on January 20. She subsequently arranged that the volunteers sing a happy birthday song for him that night, hoping to let the young man, alone in a foreign land, feel the warmth of someone’s care.

Moreover, Yin told the young man, “On your actual birthday, the 19th, I’ll come to the shelter first to give you a birthday cake and gifts.” Hearing this, he was so happy and kept exchanging fist bumps with Yin to show how touched he was. They agreed to meet to celebrate his birthday together, and Yin would not come alone.

Tzu Chi volunteer Lin Yuzhen cares about the lives of young homeless people and brings them care like family
Tzu Chi volunteer Lulu Yin takes the plight of a young undocumented immigrant experiencing homelessness to heart, making him feel cared for, just like a family member. Photo/Courtesy of Lulu Yin

Birthday Blessings in the New Year

On January 19, Lulu Yin kept her promise. That evening, she and fellow Tzu Chi volunteer Wailing Ng came to the homeless shelter at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral to visit the young man, bringing the birthday cake and gifts they had prepared, but he didn’t show up. The next day, when the Tzu Chi team came to distribute hot meals for dinner, they brought the birthday gift and a new cake they had made for the occasion, yet the young man still wasn’t there.

However, Yin didn’t feel a sense of loss, concluding, “Actually, we didn’t assume he would definitely show up. Maybe he already found a job and a place to live! Tzu Chi volunteers always think positively to bless those in need.”

The Tzu Chi team happily gave the birthday cakes they brought to the church pastors and social service workers serving at the shelter each of the two days, offering a gesture of appreciation for their efforts on behalf of homeless individuals, especially during the cold winter months. Part of the role of those working in the shelters is encouraging unhoused individuals to stay there, which is not an easy job.

For two consecutive days, Tzu Chi volunteers come to the shelter as promised, bringing birthday cakes, gifts, and warm 30th birthday wishes for an undocumented young man who was homeless in a foreign land. Photos/Courtesy of Lulu Yin

Care Imbued with Empathy and Respect

Tzu Chi volunteers always care for unhoused individuals in their communities with empathy. Volunteer Lulu Yin once went grocery shopping and saw two homeless men at the door. She first asked them to wait and then bought food in the grocery store and brought it out to give to them. While they ate, Yin chatted with the two, asking where they came from and why they didn’t want to stay in a shelter to avoid the winter cold. One said, “I don’t like living in a shelter. I would rather sleep in my own sleeping bag and tent at night. What I need now is money; I need a job.” As Yin listened, she reflected on the oft-unjust stereotypes about people living on the streets, critical of their character or attitude while ignoring the impact of unforeseen life circumstances. Like other members of society, many unhoused individuals wish for independence and a means to support themselves; they would welcome any opportunity to stand up on their own feet again. What they need is compassion instead of judgment.

Volunteer Lulu Yin will buy food for homeless individuals if she sees them outside grocery stores, and they, in turn, will share it with others in the same circumstances. Photos/Lulu Yin

Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region’s volunteers in San Francisco have been caring for unhoused individuals for many years, organizing an annual winter distribution during which they provide sleeping bags and other supplies. There, they met a Hispanic man who was struggling with homelessness and had appeared at every distribution event since 2006. The man’s ex-wife is from Taiwan, so he is fluent in Chinese and chats with Yin in Chinese each time. When he didn’t show up at the 2022 distribution, Yin remarked, “It’s been fifteen years, from 2006 to 2021, so I missed him.”

For more than a decade, Tzu Chi volunteers in San Francisco have continued their annual winter distribution for individuals struggling with homelessness, their care bringing warmth and cheer to help ease their difficult life circumstances. Photo/Lulu Yin

And then, on December 23, 2023, just before Christmas, the Tzu Chi San Francisco team met this Hispanic man at their winter distribution at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral. This time, he wore a janitor’s uniform and was very serious about cleaning up in the Cathedral’s shelter. As it turned out, he had already left life on the streets and started this janitor job. When the man saw Yin, he immediately greeted her in Chinese. When they chatted about Taiwan, he exclaimed, “May the Heavenly Father bless Taiwan.”

As the volunteers busied themselves with the winter distribution, their Hispanic friend was busy cleaning. When everyone had completed their work and was ready to leave, he proudly announced to the volunteers, “I’m going home,” those words carrying a much deeper meaning. When Lulu Yin heard that, she was so happy for him because it meant her friend was no longer homeless. And before he set off towards his home, the volunteers all wished him the best.

A Hispanic man (second right), who had previously been homeless and had now found a cleaning job, has a joyful reunion with Tzu Chi volunteers at their winter distribution at the Old St. Mary’s Cathedral shelter. Photo/Lulu Yin

The wind outside the San Francisco winter shelter for people experiencing homelessness might have been frigid, but the hot meals shared by Tzu Chi volunteers and their heartfelt care lit a bright light inside the shelter, warming everyone’s hearts and accompanying them through difficult life circumstances. Your love and support help make such Tzu Chi charity programs nationwide possible!

More News Stories