Pin It

Their Daily Bread 

A new generation of activists is fighting to clean up the Tenderloin. The neighborhood’s churches are standing in their way. Whose side are the angels on?

Wednesday, Feb 4 2009
Comments

You have the poor always with you. This saying of Jesus was recorded 2,000 years ago, and on New Year's morning in the Tenderloin, the poor were with us still. Hungry and griping about late Social Security checks, hearing voices and complaining of hangovers, they lined up before a glass storefront on Turk Street, waiting to get a free meal.

This is the home of Fraternite Notre Dame, a religious order that moved into the Tenderloin — frequently dubbed San Francisco's worst neighborhood — last fall. Run by a pair of French nuns, the kitchen was preparing to open its doors to a crowd that would number in the hundreds. Pigeons burst periodically across the sky overhead, flitting between brick rooftops. It was foggy and cold. A tall, thickset man, wearing a tight black tank top despite the morning chill, walked unsteadily by.

He stopped and addressed himself to someone in line.

"Did you ask me a question, sir?"

"No."

"'Cause if you asked me a question, I don't want to hear it." His bloodshot eyes bulged. "You think you're a tough guy. Fuck you, nigga. You ain't even black. Gay motherfucker. I still don't like the way you're standin' there lookin' cute. This is New Year's Day, and Obama's president, and I'm a nigga and I don't give a fuck. Shit, man. I'm still lookin' for trouble."

It was not trouble that appeared just then, but Sister Marie Madeleine, a pale and diminutive woman who speaks with a strong French accent. The nun, clad head-to-toe in a dark habit, cracked open the door and peeked into the street. A heavy crucifix dangled from her neck. The man in the tank top ambled down the street and looked for trouble elsewhere. The doors opened, and those in line shuffled in.

"We saw the need here," Marie Madeleine says, explaining her order's decision to set up shop on this stretch of Turk just off Market. "The people hanging in the streets. The people sleeping on the sidewalk. Our founder inspired us to take care of the poor. We do that for the glory of God."

They are not alone. On any given day in this part of town, thousands of people line up for food within a space not much bigger than a football field. Less than three blocks from Fraternite Notre Dame are other soup kitchens at Glide Memorial Church, the St. Anthony Foundation, and the San Francisco Rescue Mission. Between meals, many who depend on the charity of these churches lie on the sidewalks and crowd the corners. Their shouts echo through the streets. The Tenderloin often feels more like a refugee camp cast in concrete than what it actually is: a residential neighborhood sandwiched between San Francisco's City Hall and its busiest shopping district.

Fraternite Notre Dame showed up here last fall. The soup kitchen did not, at first, go through normal bureaucratic channels to obtain operating permits, and as a result took longtime residents by surprise. Some were not ready to welcome this latest outpost of those toiling for the glory of God.

"We don't want them here," says David Villa-Lobos, director of the Community Leadership Alliance, which advocates on behalf of Tenderloin residents on issues including development and tenants' rights. "A lot of people share this view with me."

According to Villa-Lobos and others, the Tenderloin has reached saturation point with various outlets of social services. (According to a 2004 demographic study, its 50 square blocks were home to 83 such organizations.) They say outfits like Fraternite Notre Dame draw indigent drug users and criminals — along with the innocent needy — from all over the Bay Area to the doorsteps of this troubled neighborhood's families and businesses. Some community activists are now urging a moratorium on further service organizations in the neighborhood.

San Francisco Police Captain Gary Jimenez, who runs the Tenderloin station, says the food lines and crowds that form outside churches have become favored preying grounds for neighborhood drug dealers. He adds that the men and women who, attracted by soup kitchens, wander the neighborhood — homeless, high, and well fed — drive customers from the Tenderloin's few struggling businesses.

"It's heart-wrenching," he says. "It's hard to know that people are out there trying to do something really good, and at the same time there are people paying a terrible price for it."

Many charitable groups and nonprofits operate out of the Tenderloin — free health clinics, addiction-treatment centers, halfway houses — but church soup kitchens are the most visible and have the highest impact. "With other kinds of service, you don't have people queuing up day after day," says entertainment commissioner Terrance Alan, a former Tenderloin resident and business owner who agrees that the neighborhood is overloaded with soup kitchens.

The conflict between houses of worship and community groups is indicative of how the neighborhood, long home to the city's highest concentration of social services, is changing. At stake are very different visions of the Tenderloin, which turn on a question: Should this remain a place for the poor we have always with us, or is there room for anyone else?


Dina Hilliard vividly remembers her first experience of the Tenderloin. A decade ago, Hilliard, a native of Wheaton, Illinois, had been recruited straight out of college to teach at a private Christian school in the Bay Area. She was unfamiliar with San Francisco, and thought she was coming to a suburb. "I drove up here with my dad, and I saw a guy injecting heroin on the street," she recalls. "My dad looked at me — we had driven 3,000 miles — and he said, 'We can turn around.'"

Hilliard stayed, and today is one of the Tenderloin's busiest community organizers. An articulate woman with shoulder-length brown hair and an easy professional manner, she is currently program coordinator for Safety Network, a group that advocates for improved public safety in city neighborhoods. (This summer, as part of citywide budget cuts, the program will lose its funding and cease to exist.) She also sits on the board of the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, a prominent low-income housing developer.

About The Author

Peter Jamison

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Slideshows

  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
    Arcade Fire opened their US tour at Shoreline Amphitheater to a full house who was there in support of their album "Reflector," which was released last fall. Dan Deacon opened the show to a happily surprised early audience and got the crowd actively dancing and warmed up. DEVO was originally on the bill to support Arcade Fire but a kayak accident last week had sidelined lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh and the duration of the west coast leg of the tour. Win Butler did a homage to DEVO by performing Uncontrollable Urge.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular