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?”
“'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.
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.”
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.
This profile bears little resemblance to the Tenderloin's population as a whole: Nearly a third of the Tenderloin's residents are Asian or Pacific Islander, and only 10 percent are African American, according to a 2004 study by Urban Solutions, an economic development nonprofit. From 1970 to 1990, the number of young residents in the Tenderloin swelled, in contrast to the steep decline in San Francisco's youth population as a whole. (Since then, the neighborhood's youth population has declined slightly, in keeping with the citywide trend.)
“I do hope the folks in City Hall can realize that this is a family neighborhood and folks are scared,” Lopez says. “It is a community, and I don't think even our politicians see it as one.”
Elaine Zamora, like Dina Hilliard, takes a fresh approach to the Tenderloin's chronic problems. Her North of Market/Tenderloin Community Benefit District is itself something of a revolutionary agency, despite its often-mundane duties. (Close to 80 percent of its budget goes to street cleaning. During the 2007 fiscal year, Zamora says, agency staff picked up 4,000 used syringes.)
Community benefit districts, which levy a small property tax throughout their coverage areas to undertake beautification and quality-of-life projects, tend to crop up in tony neighborhoods such as Noe Valley. In the Tenderloin, by contrast, previous efforts at neighborhood improvement have often been decried as gentrification. In 2005, one local architect's campaign to plant 400 trees was aggressively opposed by activists who said she was trying to “sanitize” the area.
Since forming in 2004, however, the Tenderloin's benefit district has accomplished a number of small but significant tasks. The CBD was instrumental in getting the Tenderloin its own full-service post office — the previous post office, like that of a university campus, was only general delivery. The district has also commissioned a mural by San Francisco artist Mona Caron for a bare wall at the corner of Jones and Golden Gate at one end of the infamous block-long gauntlet of drug pushers known as Pill Hill.
Zamora herself lives on this block. Just up the street is the soup kitchen of the St. Anthony Foundation.
“When I first came here, there were 30 people waiting on this corner,” she said on a recent tour of the neighborhood, pointing up the street from the building where she opened a law office in 2000. “They weren't waiting to eat. They were waiting to sell drugs” to those who had gathered for a free meal. Outside the soup kitchen, Zamora sometimes saw food fights.
In 2003, when St. Anthony's sought a permit to open a health clinic and expand other social services at a new facility on Golden Gate, Zamora saw a chance to act. She lobbied on behalf of the neighborhood for an extensive set of permit conditions, ultimately numbering more than two dozen, which governed how the foundation ran its services. St. Anthony's now deploys workers to monitor and control its food line, and, fulfilling another requirement, has joined a neighborhood improvement association.
None of this was easy. Zamora says she was called a NIMBY and accused of “pitting the poor against the poor.” Such charges are often an effective rallying cry in land-use battles, but don't stick easily in a neighborhood with an average of more than one social-service outlet per square block. “We have made a place more livable for people who should have a right to live that way,” she says.
Looking back, Linda Pasquinucci, deputy executive director of the St. Anthony Foundation, says the push-and-pull with neighbors was for the good. “That really was a wakeup call for us in how we were impacting the community,” she says. “I don't think we were ever aware of that.”
St. Anthony's détente with its neighbors is a rare happy ending. Glide Memorial Church and the San Francisco Rescue Mission — the other two churches that offered regular food service prior to the arrival of Fraternite Notre Dame — are another story.
In August, Jimenez, the Tenderloin police captain, made waves when he stated publicly that Glide's food line had become a market for dope peddlers. It was not an accusation to be made lightly. Glide's charismatic preacher, Cecil Williams, is a figure of national celebrity, and has been a larger-than-life presence in the Tenderloin for more than four decades.
Jimenez says the problems persist. “Some of the people that go there for the food also have substance-abuse issues, and they seem to be fairly open about it,” he says. This phenomenon, he adds, is not limited to Glide.
Williams' church feeds thousands every day, and, like St. Anthony's, offers a gamut of social services, including health care. Williams doesn't foresee a Tenderloin where these things are no longer needed. “I've been here for 44 years,” he said in an interview. “We had poor people before I got here, and they'll be around one of these days after I leave.”
He continued, “I'm convinced a lot of folks don't like poor people. And I do. I love poor folks. We are going to keep feeding poor folks. We are going to keep working.”
This single-mindedness, while it conforms to basic ideas of charity preserved over centuries in the major religious traditions, is precisely what bothers residents like Zamora and Hilliard. Glide has a reputation among its neighbors for heedless devotion to its own cause, and is sometimes accused of building itself up on the backs of those it serves. Churches like Glide depend on the largesse of individuals, foundations, and governments to pay their staffs' salaries, and donations and grants are driven by the perception that a church has work to do.
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.”
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.”
Hudson got up to piss against the wall. A woman walking down the street stopped and, improbably, handed Green a medium-sized painting. Green explained that this was a gift to thank her for temporarily safeguarding the woman's lipstick the other night. She gazed at her new possession, smiling. Depicted in thick, childlike brush strokes and varying hues of green were a naked man and woman, embracing. Something pressed upon them, covering them, from above.
It was God's hand.