Meet the ‘night minister’ who helps those who need it most in San Francisco

For decades, the Tenderloin has been known as San Francisco’s primary harbor of destitution. More than 4,000 people sleep unsheltered around the area, far more than anywhere else in the city. It’s common to encounter open-air narcotic exchanges, human feces on the sidewalk, and desperate expressions of mental illness. At night, the neighborhood also turns into a kind of parish.

Since 1964, an ordained “night minister” has offered comfort and support to those in need around these streets. For 11 years, this was Reverend Lyle Beckman’s vocation: Every night between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., he’d stop and converse with people in the Tenderloin: the homeless, mentally ill, sex workers, addicts, and those down on their luck. Sometimes he’d offer crisis counseling, a pair of socks or a blanket, or a quiet prayer. Always, his job as director of the nonprofit San Francisco Night Ministry was to provide a human connection, in the hours when fear and isolation surface most.

Night ministers have thousands of these interactions over the course of a year, and usually, there is a spiritual dimension to them. But contrary to what many assume, the goal is not to convert vulnerable souls or condemn sinful activity. Rather, it’s to simply help those who are struggling most. When the San Francisco Council of Churches launched the night ministry in the 1960s, most conversations were with recent arrivals to the city, many of them young runaways, struggling with their new lives.

Now, amid San Francisco’s historic housing crisis, the reverends tend largely to the growing population of unsheltered people, especially those dealing with mental illness and addiction. It is a thankless task that changes many lives, and now we have the chance to get an inside look into the life of a ‘night minister’ thanks to a new short documentary. For a reminder of the inherent good of people, take a look at this little documentary.

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