Merchant of Redemption

During his first three decades on Sixth Street, Tom McKnight Sr. used his various businesses to educate his children and counsel them in the doctrine of social obligation. Now his son must balance the demands of activism against the realities of commerce

Zenti tracks available funding streams and other projects. She comes into Tom's Grocery several times a week and updates Ulan -- and gets a free lunch -- allowing him to get the word out from behind his register.

In many ways, Zenti is a foil for the would-be saviors of Sixth Street: white, from a comfortable socio-economic background, and untethered to the area. But she is as committed as she is ubiquitous here on Sixth Street, zipping around on her red scooter with her matching helmet, which she tends to wear for overly long periods of time after parking her metal steed. It's the geek in her.

She's also a delightful nag. "Are you coming to the board meeting tonight?" she pesters Ulan as he prices the grapes.

"Is Amalita going to be there?" Ulan asks.
"I thought you said you were over the Amalita thing," Zenti says. (McKnight and Pasqual, the SoMa Foundation director, broke off a relationship several months ago, and for comity's sake McKnight hasn't been going to meetings where he would see Pasqual.)

Zenti doesn't have time to counsel Ulan, however. The SSMRA is having its weekly medical clinic and condom and needle giveaway tonight at its offices down the block, and Zenti is running late.

Striding down the street, Zenti -- yes, she's a social work major -- reaches into a crowd of street drunks and, without slowing down, grabs an inebriated young woman by the arm. "I want to talk to you," Zenti says, dragging the woman along. "I haven't been seeing you at the medical clinic."

"I got jumped," the woman sloshes. "Look at my black eye."
Once inside the SSMRA offices, Zenti bores in. "Aren't you getting tired of this?" she asks, handing the woman a list of free places to eat in the city.

"I'll take this just to keep you quiet," the woman says, looking over her shoulder at the door every few seconds.

"I know where you live," Zenti says. "I'll come wake you up."
"When was your last [HIV] test?" Zenti asks, steering the woman into the back room for a private conversation.

Leading the girl out later, Zenti asks, "Are you registered to vote?"
Zenti has no success that evening when she tries to keep her charge at a drug prevention meeting and health clinic the SSMRA runs twice weekly. But plenty of the residents show up for the following evening's crime prevention talk. It's their chance for an extraordinary and frank exchange with Cmdr. Dennis Martel (pretty far up on the cops' totem pole, by the way) and two of his Southern Station cops.

It may sound corny, but this is the real meat of community organizing, putting cops in the same room as residents, making sure that lines of communication stay open and the cops are made to have a stake in salvaging the area. The churches aren't coming back. But if the residents can strike a relationship with the Police Department, they won't feel torn loose from the rest of society.

The SSMRA is out to facilitate another unexpected alliance. If a grant proposal goes through in September, the group will add a plank to their organizational platform: addressing the horrible living conditions in the SROs and attempting to heal the fractious relations between tenants and owners.

SRO residents and owners typically loathe each other. The owners don't maintain their buildings; residents trash the property.

In taking on this new crusade, the SSMRA will most likely butt heads with Randy Shaw and his Tenderloin Housing Clinic. Shaw's Modified Payments Program administers welfare checks for hotel dwellers, paying the rent and negotiating for improved living conditions. But Perez and Ulan question the amount of time and energy he puts into improvements -- and the very process used by Shaw.

By contrast, the SSMRA wants to develop a more ambitious plan to improve SRO hotels by steering funds and loans to owners on the condition that they upgrade their properties. It's a big job. About 30 hotels and 500 to 600 SRO rooms lie between Market and Howard.

The SSMRA clinic would also counsel tenants. "We propose to do tenant screening," Perez says, "to do a personal touch." This is the kind of collaborative approach Ulan says distinguishes Sixth Street organizing.

And what about Shaw? "If this means war with Randy," says Perez, who once organized tenants with Shaw, "then it's on. I'm ready for it. I've waited five years to do this."

Perez may be ready. But for Ulan, a war with the politically savvy Shaw is just the kind of distraction that could hurt his business. He would soon find himself juggling his competing objectives -- politics and business. And engaging in a political war from behind a cash register could prove costly.

But as any day with Ulan will show, he just can't seem to stop involving himself in the intractable struggles of Sixth Street

In the middle of the afternoon, Dale Smith, a 42-year-old ex-con who's been drinking hard since he was 9, shows off his son and his 60-day sobriety token, which hangs around his neck.

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