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?

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.

Hilliard is one figure in a rising coalition of activists who have taken up the cause of a neighborhood many don't even know exists. "I always tell people that for every person you see out on the street, there are probably five residents who are responsible, socially contributing individuals," she says. "People don't realize that. They think it's all just crackheads."

Three days a week at lunchtime, men and women line up in the street outside Fraternite Notre Dame.
Josh Edelson
Three days a week at lunchtime, men and women line up in the street outside Fraternite Notre Dame.
Sister Marie Madeleine (left) and Sister Marie Isabelle opened a soup kitchen in the Tenderloin several months ago. “We saw the need here,” Marie Madeleine says.
Josh Edelson
Sister Marie Madeleine (left) and Sister Marie Isabelle opened a soup kitchen in the Tenderloin several months ago. “We saw the need here,” Marie Madeleine says.

Along with other like-minded activists, Hilliard wants a moratorium on new service organizations in the Tenderloin, and believes its existing churches have often been blind to the local impact of their charitable works. Barbara Lopez of La Voz Latina, an organization catering to Hispanic families, run out of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, says the lines that form outside churches are a particular source of distress.

"We definitely have had young women be harassed" by men in line, she says. "And when I say young, I'm talking 10."

One Tenderloin resident responding to a neighborhood questionnaire Hilliard distributed suggested that soup kitchens not open at all during school hours: "They are very aggressive people; they cause a lot of problems for the children. They smoke, shout, and they are rude. We can't turn around because they are where we live." (This comment was translated from Spanish and, like most others, submitted anonymously.)

The neighborhood's troubles are nothing new. The Tenderloin has long been a cauldron of urban vices, from its days as a hub of Prohibition-era speakeasies to its brisk dope trade in the present. What has changed are the people forced to live with these problems. While much of the neighborhood's housing stock caters to single adults — in 2004 there were 54 single-resident-occupancy (SRO) hotels in the Tenderloin — it has become increasingly attractive to families, among them many immigrants, looking for a cheap place in the city to call home.

The emergence of Hilliard, Lopez, and others like them represents a shift in Tenderloin politics corresponding to this demographic sea change. For decades, the neighborhood's political heavyweights have been figures who counted as their constituents adults coping with homelessness, hunger, or addiction. As a result, housing and social services, rather than effective policies addressing crime or the quality of life, have been the neighborhood's top priorities at City Hall. Supervisor Chris Daly, whose district includes the Tenderloin, has carried on this tradition, fighting recently to cut funding for a Community Justice Center that would prosecute minor offenses, such as petty theft or assault, that irk families and business owners. He did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

These days, the entrenched political interests are facing something of an insurrection. In spring 2007, hundreds of Tenderloin residents filed into the supervisors' chambers, brandishing bullhorns and holding aloft yellow signs that read "Community Not Containment." (A common complaint is that the neighborhood serves as a "containment district," or dumping ground, for the city's indigent.)

"We wanted to show that it's a community of people, and it's not just the living dead out here," says Hilliard, who organized the march.

Elaine Zamora, another Tenderloin community organizer, says Daly wasn't pleased. "He thought we had sandbagged him, because the press went up to him and asked, 'What's going on with the people in the Tenderloin?'"

Not all approve of this cause. Sue Hestor, a Bernal Heights lawyer who keeps an office on the edge of the Tenderloin and has long been active in the neighborhood's housing issues, dismissed the idea of restrictions on service organizations as a concoction of "yuppies" who had recently moved in. "They want the district to conform to their desires," she says. "They moved into a low-income area, and want it to be a high-income area."

Hestor added, "The social-service agencies aren't the problem. The social-service agencies are the solution to the problem, unless you want people to just die on the streets."

But those accepting charity in the Tenderloin, it turns out, aren't necessarily those who live there. Consider a 2002 survey of people who eat at the St. Anthony Foundation's soup kitchen, one of the largest in the Tenderloin. (The foundation provided a copy of the survey to SF Weekly.) Among respondents, 55 percent were homeless and 49 percent were unemployed. More than 80 percent of guests were male, and 75 percent were older than 40. More than 40 percent were African American, and only 2 percent were Asian or Pacific Islander.

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