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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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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.

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Peter Jamison

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