Tender Box

Inflamed by crime, drugs, and rising rents, Tenderloin residents are now launching lawsuits to clean up the city's dumping ground

Over the course of two hours, Jenkins moves through the room, soliciting input. He holds a cordless microphone, like a talk show host. His watch dial catches the light. People complain about the three supervisors not being there, about the need for more services, more housing, more funding. They say the homeless are dying on the streets. People ask if any representatives from the city are present. Five hands go up, an island of suits amid the crowd. Are you guys movers and shakers? someone jeers. People talk about the sick, screwed-up, greed-driven global economy. Jenkins coaxes them back to homelessness; people say the homeless need to be here; We're here, a few voices cry out.

People say they need to start acting more like a village. A sense of togetherness flows through the room. People say they've been dissed, big time, by the three absent supervisors. I hear what you're saying, Jenkins replies. But we still have work to do, whether the supervisors show up or not.

A neighborhood resident for the past four years, Jenkins first discovered NOMPC in 1996 at a $3-per-plate spaghetti dinner at Boeddeker Park. Perhaps 100 people attended the dinner, talking about redevelopment. It was exciting, he says, all that talk about how the neighborhood was going to change.

Jenkins dropped by a board meeting a year later, after NOMPC went belly up: Only three people were there. Since then, the private, largely resident-based nonprofit group has built its membership back up to around 80.

NOMPC is focusing on the very delicate tasks of luring in businesses the neighborhood needs -- like markets selling fresh vegetables and meat -- and increasing the affordable housing stock while preventing unwanted gentrification.

The group also hopes to regain the political influence it once had both within the neighborhood and at City Hall. One thing about the Tenderloin is that, while it has an abundance of nonprofit and activist groups, varying agendas can make it difficult to put forth a single position.

"Hopefully, we can let all these other organizations know that, hey, we've got to come together here, we need one voice to come out of this community telling the rest of the world what we want," Jenkins says. Since being elected president in March, he has put in 40 to 60 hours a week, unpaid, attending meetings, lobbying city officials from the mayor on down, learning things as he goes.

As the town hall meeting on homelessness comes to an end, people say you only get what you're organized to take, and talk about attending the next meeting of the Board of Supervisors, to let the world know who didn't show up.

At a NOMPC board meeting the next evening, members discuss the ongoing search for a paid community outreach coordinator, and receive a visit from Beverly Hills-based developer Steve Crowe. Crowe hopes to build a 10-story, 400-room, $75 million hotel at Mason and Ellis, and has been making the rounds of local groups before proceeding, hoping to avoid conflicts with the neighborhood.

Board members discuss replacing the housing that would be lost, the risk of setting a bad precedent, and ask about jobs and job training for neighborhood residents. The latter is a possibility, although the devil's in the details, Crowe says.

"I'll tell you up front, we've cost people hundreds of thousands of dollars in design changes," longtime NOMPC member Marvis Phillips tells Crowe. "Coming to us first was smart."

At its June 8 board meeting, the North of Market Planning Coalition announced that it had hired a community outreach coordinator, and received a visit from Steve Ryan of Zephyr Real Estate, with which NOMPC is attempting to reach an agreement on affordable housing at a 12-unit condominium project on Leavenworth Street.

The board also lent its support to a proposed 40-bed emergency shelter for young adults on Ellis Street, saying the facility would serve a population already in the neighborhood. NOMPC then found itself a house divided over the only other shelter proposed for San Francisco in 1999 -- a 116-bed facility on Golden Gate Avenue for homeless families.

One board member had no objection at all to the proposed shelter. Others felt that, for safety reasons, the Tenderloin isn't the right place to bring families. Maria Torre, a single mother who was homeless herself for a brief period, said such a position was hypocritical: "Homeless families aren't bad people. ... Let other people fight over this," she urged.

The discussion grew heated: Board members talked about being dumped on again, about other neighborhoods doing their fair share, and about people with roofs over their heads denying those without. They talked about permanent housing as opposed to shelters, about drawing business into a neighborhood full of social services, and about compassion: "If everyone else is shutting their doors on poor people, we'll open our arms," said Kristin Yarris.

As the debate moved around the table, NOMPC President Garrett Jenkins suggested a compromise -- to take a position in favor of permanent, affordable family housing. The motion passed unanimously, and the project, which has since been opposed by a number of other neighborhood leaders, is currently on hold.

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