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?

In its fall 2008 newsletter, Glide described an "exploding" demand for food. More than 68,000 meals were served there in July, an increase of 18 percent over the previous year. The same newsletter noted that a recent auction for lunch with Warren Buffett had raised $2.1 million for the church — and stated that $15 million was still needed.

The commingling of pious words and dollar signs is not always seemly, and skeptics have a name for it.

"In order for them to continue to get their financial donations, they have to show that they're meeting a need," Hilliard says. "We call it pimping the poor."

David Villa-Lobos, a Tenderloin activist, asked the city’s planning department to crack down on Fraternite Notre Dame. “We don’t want them here,” he says.
Josh Edelson
David Villa-Lobos, a Tenderloin activist, asked the city’s planning department to crack down on Fraternite Notre Dame. “We don’t want them here,” he says.

Compared to Glide and St. Anthony's, the San Francisco Rescue Mission runs a relatively small food operation, serving from 60 to 160 people each day. The church also has a health clinic and K-8 school with about 30 students.

Roger Huang, the Rescue Mission's founder and head pastor, has worked in the Tenderloin for 25 years and has developed concrete ideas about what's wrong with the neighborhood. He says two things keep it mired in misery: There are too many public toilet stalls, which harbor clandestine drug use, and too many liquor stores. Huang thinks complaints from community organizers about churches like his are overblown.

"Even President Obama is not going to have 100 percent friends," he says. "He's going to have enemies. I'm sure there are some radicals out there trying to take his life. We've been here for 25 years. We are going to have some enemies in our midst."

Huang said he wasn't familiar with the new soup kitchen down the street. In time, that may change — because, as it turns out, Fraternite Notre Dame is here to stay. Last month, the city gave its blessing to the French nuns to keep their soup kitchen going, despite objections from neighborhood groups. For now, it appears that containment has prevailed over community in the Tenderloin.

In mid-January, Fraternite Notre Dame got the nod from the Department of Public Health and, more importantly, the Planning Department, whose inspectors decided the soup kitchen didn't have to go through the process of obtaining a conditional-use permit. (It was this process that led to the neighborhood dialogue over St. Anthony's in 2003.) About the same time, the nuns' mother superior traveled from Chicago to visit the order's newest facility. "She's happy that everything worked out," Marie Madeleine says.

Some of the neighbors are less happy.

Fraternite Notre Dame shares a block with several small businesses, including a hotel, dry cleaner, and two delis. (A bookshop closed in December.) One business owner, who fears retribution from those who eat at the soup kitchen and did not want her name used, says she is considering leaving the area because Fraternite Notre Dame's guests scare her customers. Other merchants, Jimenez says, "have concerns. Some of them don't wish to voice them." Assailing men and women of the cloth, as Zamora and others have learned, is not a quick road to popularity.

Entertainment commissioner Alan believes city officials could help the Tenderloin by taking a more strategic long-term approach to what they allow into the neighborhood, and where. "We can't just say, 'Oh, it's for a good cause, and so we can do it,' at whatever expense to the neighborhood," he says. "I think that sometimes that's the assumed attitude, and it shouldn't be. We should create a good community for everyone."

Those who see the Tenderloin first and foremost as a place to exercise charitable impulses are not the only ones with a stake in, or influence over, the neighborhood's future. But right now, they're the ones who are winning.

The business of serving the poor is brisk. Marie Madeleine says she and Sister Marie Isabelle are now feeding about 300 a day, up from 200 in December, and may eventually expand service beyond their current three days a week. In an effort to control the food line, the sisters have set up several orange construction pylons, strung together by yellow tape, along the side of the building. "We're trying," says Dick McNeil, who regularly travels from Hunters Point to volunteer at the kitchen.

Meanwhile, others are concerned about the kinds of services most city residents take for granted, and which the Tenderloin still lacks. It's a lonely cause. Lopez of La Voz Latina notes that the neighborhood doesn't have a single supermarket. Jimenez laments that supervisors haven't given him a neighborhood-wide no-loitering policy to enforce, enabling police officers to sweep known drug dealers from the streets. "It's going to be a dark day in hell if they ever allow that," he says. "That could signal the end of drug dealing in the Tenderloin. But that's a dream."

For now, the Tenderloin remains hospitable to people like Leroy Hudson and Michelle Green. Hudson, who smokes crack, has lived on the street for a decade; Green has moved out of the Tenderloin, but says she still comes back during the day to hang out and use drugs. Both visit the churches in the neighborhood for meals.

On a recent afternoon, the pair sat together on the sidewalk on Jones. "It hasn't changed," said Green, a solidly built woman with short, tightly curled salt-and-pepper hair. "You look up 'Tenderloin' in the dictionary. The first one is a cut of meat. The second one is a place of bad activity."

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