Mission in the Tenderloin

A week in the Tenderloin

Last week I led a group of adults on an immersion experience to the Tenderloin, focused on the ministries and services of the St. Anthony Foundation.  We worked in the dining room, the clothing program and visited seniors in the Madonna and Presentation Centers.  On the last day, we were able to visit the Gubbio project at St. Boniface Catholic Church room where the homeless sleep during the day in the pews after a long night of vigilance to avoid being beaten or robbed.  St. Anthony’s provides excellent orientation and education on poverty, homelessness, and other challenges faced by the guests that use their services.  We stayed at the Maryknoll Mission House and began each morning with breakfast and prayer before traveling on BART to San Francisco and St Anthony’s.  Each late afternoon we returned to the house for Mass and dinner followed by small and large group reflections on the day. 
The Tenderloin is not entirely unique; there are pockets of poverty in nearly every large city.  But some particular realities contribute to the situations of suffering in which people find themselves.  Rent is extremely high in most of San Francisco.  The average rent exceeds $2800 for a one-bedroom apartment (June 2014-rentjungle.com).  An SRO (single-room occupancy) hotel room 10’ X 8’ can cost as much as $1,000 per month and most of the city’s 500 units offer abysmal conditions with leaking pipes and infested with mice, cockroaches and bedbugs.  Affordable housing is becoming increasingly rare as more developers cater to the highly paid high-tech industry.  As a result, people continue to struggle to find shelter; for the very poor, unemployed, mentally or physically disabled, it is an impossible task without subsidized housing.  Being homeless contributes to a multitude of health related problems.  The poor tend to use the emergency room as a primary care provider, driving up the cost of healthcare.  Studies show that providing people with housing reduces costs to taxpayers.  One such study in Utah revealed that providing the homeless with an apartment and a social worker cost taxpayers $11,000 per year as compared to $16K annually in emergency room and hospital stays (stanthonysf.org: July 2014).

Poverty is a very complex subject and there is a nearly endless amount of research going on in an attempt to understand and alleviate its effects on society…too much on which to elaborate here.  Taking part in an urban immersion experience can reveal more than mere statistics however.  Eating with the guests in the dining room at St. Anthony’s put a human face on poverty, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and homelessness by providing the opportunity to hear personal stories and to realize that we are all part of the one human family.  I heard stories of lost jobs due to depression following the loss of a loved one.  In an attempt to block out the pain, many turned to alcohol, then lost employment, leading to eventual homelessness.  There were stories of injuries leading to permanent disabilities, loss of income, health insurance and eventually housing.  I learned that the poor spend entire days waiting in line: waiting for a meal, to see a free clinic doctor, to get a change of clothes, to take a shower, to get a shelter bed, etc.  For any service, there is a long line.  It is tiring, dehumanizing, and sets up a situation that makes it difficult to look for work, if there was any work to be had in today’s economy. 

So I wonder, how many of our societal structures essentially “pull the rug out” from under people? Healthcare that is priced above most people’s ability to pay without insurance and jobs that provide no benefits, wages that do not provide a decent living, rents and home prices that cater to those earning six figures all contribute to the homelessness and poverty I witnessed in the Tenderloin.  I heard stories that could have come out of my own family: mistakes, some bad decisions, a victim of circumstance or economics, and of a world that values the success of the individual and spurns the vulnerabilities of the person. 

Despite these dire circumstances, I discovered that the people of the streets have hopes, dreams and find joy in the little things of life like a sunny day, a smile from a stranger and a pew to sleep on in a quiet church.  I was told countless jokes, observed artistic and musical talents, met a few friendly dog companions and looked into countless eyes yearning for some dignity and happiness.  I am being careful not to “romanticize” the poverty of the Tenderloin…it is a rough section of San Francisco peppered by the drug trade, prostitution, human trafficking, where human prey on each other.  But people also protect each other, share resources, form community and attempt to make the best of a insufferable situation. 
Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium urges the Church to "take on the smell of the sheep" meaning we are to go outside of our own familiar circle of friends and churches and look for Christ in others.  I found Him everywhere and my heart was greatly moved. I saw in a very concrete way that there is no “us and them,” there is only us! 

For more information on immersion experiences and mission education, please contact Kris East at (510) 276-5021 or keast@maryknoll.org