Humans of NHC: Meet Paul Trudeau, Founder and CEO of City Hope San Francisco!

Posted on: June 25, 2024San Francisco

Paul Trudeau is the Chief Executive Officer of City Hope San Francisco, an organization that builds community and provides resources to people in the Tenderloin neighborhood. City Hope describes itself as “a living room for those without enough living space”. Prior to his current role, Paul served as chaplain in San Francisco County Jail. NHC SF AmeriCorps Member Hannah Feldmeier sat down with Paul to discuss City Hope and the services that it provides - read on for the full interview!

Can you talk about the mission of City Hope and its history?

I came to San Francisco in 2005, and I am a reverend, a Presbyterian minister. I worked at a church where my job was not preaching on Sundays or anything like that but mobilizing a faith community to serve the city. For 10 years I worked in county jail developing spiritual practices for inmates. I worked with both men and women in rehabs and in hospitals for a long time. But I felt a burden for my city to create a really beautiful space where people could go when they come out of these institutions. Where they could be served a wonderful meal in a restaurant setting; where we could do good relief work with people and help them in their present needs. The dream also was that we would provide sober living for those who are working hard to conquer their addictions. I'd worked with a lot of people who were about 9 months to 12 months sober and I saw my friends just continuously relapse. There are not a lot of resources at the relapse stage. That was the dream. I wanted to create a community center: meals, showers, all the things for people who are unhoused, even housing. I especially had a heart for people who had been working so hard to get off the street but kept sliding back to zero. And that came to fruition in 2015 when we opened the center, and in 2016 we opened a hotel that became the City Hope House. 

Paul Trudeau stands in the middle of the frame, facing the camera and smiling. He is wearing a white, collared button up shirt. The City Hope House is a transitional living sober house. Can you talk about the need that this house is meeting and how individuals get a spot?

We have a waiting list since a lot of people want and need this type of housing. Our city typically prioritizes housing-first models, which is terrific regarding “homes solve homelessness.” They literally do. But it takes a lot more to create community health and healing in a city than just giving someone a tiny little room. We have seen so many people work so hard to re-enter jobs, sobriety, and healthy relationships, but they’re going back into these small housing units that have too many triggers. There is way too much addiction in this neighborhood. We just really wanted to create a place that says, “If you join this space, we're going to give you a great apartment with a bathroom, which a lot of places don’t have. And we’re going to give it to you for two years. There is accountability, but we are not hovering over people the way that rehabs have to.” These people are pretty steady, but they can’t be thrown back into chaos or stress when they’re going back to work, so they have money in their pockets but still need a bit of accountability in terms of, “Hey, we see you, we love you, we house you, and you are here to support what we do in the community.” So, this is the perfect second stage for someone who has already completed the first stage; we just don’t have a lot of second stages in this city. My deep desire is that this city, my city, the city that I love, would learn how to scale success. Unfortunately, we tend to flatten everyone to the lowest common denominator. That sounds harsh, but what I mean is that we help everyone the same. And it's like, no, this is really diverse and complex, and you actually have to give people hope along the way. The first stage of hope is not the second stage of hope, if you will.

There are so many pieces to City Hope. There is the City Hope transitional living sober house, the Monday Game Nights and Wednesday Movie Nights, the Cafe, the hot showers and hygiene kits, the home cooked meals, grocery delivery… if you could expand City Hope, what would you want to add?

I would expand more on what we’re doing because it is working. I am privately funded. The city isn’t prioritizing the things that we value regarding community development. I feel like our city just throws resources around with not a lot of relational intention. So, if I had more money, I could expand some of our programming. I wouldn’t want a bigger space, though. Our space seats 60 people upstairs and 75 downstairs. That is intimate enough. It is not a factory; it’s not Costco. It's more like a boutique or bodega, you know. But I would franchise; I have always had a heart for SoMa and 6th Street. That is where I spent a lot of time early in my career. Five blocks from here, people don’t know City Hope. You could really bring so much healthy community to the Tenderloin and to SoMa.

You emphasize two things each week at the dinner and movie / game nights – to say each guest's name and that the food is to be eaten together and not taken to go. Why are these two things so important?

I believe that names are more important than just numbers, and you’ve been here enough to know that our goal is to know names. We can feed people; that’s almost the easy part. The good meal, our chef takes care of that, but if we put a meal in a box and never know who grabbed it, we haven’t won that day. We haven’t changed anything. In fact, we're just helping people stay isolated. I want to emphasize that nobody is starving to death, and that’s thanks to places like St. Anthony’s and Glide. I am very complimentary of those big, huge feeding programs, but that's not our issue. I want to tread lightly here because food insecurity is real. We do grocery delivery all the time, especially healthy food. But I don’t think that’s what’s keeping us in this broken cycle. It is that we don’t have good, healthy relationships in our city. And we have a huge drug problem, which erodes and decays relationships. If someone is on the street and they want a meal, I certainly want to feed them, but I want something more than that. I want to know them. I want them to know I know them.

What are the best meals you’ve had? It’s with friends, with family around a table. It's not fast food. A person at McDonald’s or Wendy’s doesn’t really care who you are or what your name is. It’s a transaction. It is community-building with food that changes lives. That is why we insist on two things from our guests at the door: their name and their time. It is reciprocity; we are taking from them too. I don’t care what you want your name to be today, but I want to be able to call it from the rafters. It changes things. When I hear my name, I turn my head. I also can’t build a relationship if you don’t give me your time. Worst of all is when someone is deep in their addiction; they are in this cycle of surviving and getting high. So, if I keep feeding you and never say your name, you didn’t die from hunger. You died from addiction, and I enabled you to get there. It is a health issue, and one of the biggest ways to break it down is to love someone, know someone, and look them in the eyes and say, “I love you, and I hope you love yourself today.” When that happens, people start to care about themselves.

It seems that the guests really do become part of a family here at City Hope. You have the same people continuously coming back as both guests and volunteers. What makes this place so special, and do you have a favorite story you could share?

There's a guy out there tonight. I distinctly remember in year one when he came in, and we found out it was his birthday. We ran out and got some candles, and we had some chocolate cake or cupcakes. We sang him happy birthday, and he broke down crying. He said he hadn't celebrated his birthday in 20 years. That was the first day I met him, and he is still in there now. And that is what I love. He is not someone I was trying to fix; he is someone I wanted to know. Regarding volunteers, I love that children get to volunteer here. I volunteered in high school at a soup kitchen for a Thanksgiving meal, and an elderly lady gave me a piece of gum. I was a dopey teenage boy, but I can remember it like it was yesterday. I didn't expect someone I was giving a turkey dinner to give me anything back. She had nothing, but she reached into her pocket and had a piece of Trident gum. That is what I believe is happening with some of the youth. I am not just looking to City Hope for adults; I am looking at the next generation. I want my children and many children of SF to make a better city once I retire. Their hope and their innocence are in that room. Our guests don’t get to be around a lot of young people. I love that this is a place where guests know children and children know their neighbor and can actually talk to them.

What opportunities are there for someone who wants to volunteer or get involved with City Hope?

There are so many things happening here. It starts in the morning, serving coffee to around 120-140 guests in two hours and saying good morning to them. I like morning energy because there is hope at the start of the day. I need volunteers to just ask, "Do you take cream in your coffee? Do you want sugar?" All those things. We provide a simple breakfast. We also offer grocery delivery, which I appreciate for multiple reasons. Some people with disabilities can’t make it to food pantries, and groceries are heavy. Plus, some have anxiety issues that make it very scary for them to go to the pantry.

Then there are our dinners and breakfasts upstairs. Breakfast on Saturdays is really popular; it’s hard to get a spot as a volunteer. We have a range of activities like karaoke, bingo, and table trivia. We even host events like the Superbowl and Oscars. This is a place where San Franciscans come together. Everything I am passionate about, I am just as passionate about my volunteers overcoming their biases, fears, and getting to know their neighbors' names. It's not "us for them," it's "us for us."

Is there anything else you would like to share?

San Francisco has a big ego. We have a big footprint globally with tech. Everyone has seen a movie with SF getting crushed by a monster. But there are not even a million people in SF Proper. You just bump into people. At that moment, you can feel, “This can actually work if we do this, if we know each other's names. So much of what hurts our city is when we feel alone and treat other people like they don’t matter. We have to build community at the baseline. Just providing resources does not get you there.”


About the Author:




Position Title:

PHACS Care and Capacity Coordinator

Where are you from?

I grew up in Palo Alto, California and lived there until college. I have been living in Oregon for school for the past 4 years and am excited to be back in the bay now!

Why did you decide to join NHC?

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