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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
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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

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