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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

Page 3 of 4

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.

About The Author

Peter Jamison


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