BY TIM SVOBODA
Imagine you dropped your wallet somewhere on the sidewalk. What are the chances you would get it back if someone found it? James Montgomery in his book, Happy City, says this is the test to determine how safe a city is. Trust is the key factor but trust is built upon relationships.
The Tenderloin to most people is known as the dangerous section of San Francisco. With an estimated 3,680 people* living/sleeping or hanging out on the streets of the city district at any given time, it can come across as a place where most people don’t even feel safe with their wallet in their back pocket. Most people stay clear of the Tenderloin, but after living and working in this neighborhood for 11 years I have come to love it.
Over the years I have lived and worked in this neighborhood I have sat in almost every monthly police meeting in our community, listening to the fears and concerns of people who don’t feel safe walking on the sidewalks or going to the corner grocery stores. There are always demands for more police patrols, more arrests, stricter laws, and stronger enforcement.
While all that is good, we are finding the biggest enhancer to safety is friendship and social interaction. James Montgomery, in his book, points out that regular social interaction with the people in your neighborhood in the long term builds trust and friendship. Trust and friendship, in the end, is the biggest enhancer of feeling safe.
We, at YWAM SF, do that by serving hot chocolate on the streets of our neighborhood. It is not just a cup of hot chocolate that people appreciate, but it is the friendship and interest in their lives that makes the hot chocolate taste so good.
We build trust and friendship by attending various neighborhood meetings and being active participants in working together for a better neighborhood. Sometimes I stop on my walk home from work to pass out granola bars and ask people how they are doing. I have never dropped my wallet on the sidewalk, but my wife did. And someone picked it up and returned it to her with all the money left inside.
Sometime back, I was interviewed by our local police station after being selected the “citizen of the month.” Every month our former Police Captain would choose one local resident and write their story up in the Police community newsletter.
To get the story, one of the station cops needed to interview me. We sat at one of our local neighborhood cafes where he asked me a bunch of questions, trying to condense my story down into a few paragraphs. One of the questions he asked me was, “What is your favorite place in all of San Francisco?”
Now that is a tough question for most people. San Francisco has so many beautiful places like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of Fine Arts, or the Embarcadero to name just a few. Instantly, without any competition of places in my mind, I announced, “My favorite spot in San Francisco is The Tenderloin National Forest.” He looked at me and asked me, “Where is that?” I told him it was just a few blocks from where we were sitting.
He then shared that he had worked in the neighborhood for 8 years but had never heard of the place before. I described to him how it used to be a dead end alley stacked with dumpsters, drug addicts and criminal activity. A few local artists negotiated a lease with the City of San Francisco for $1.00 a year and nurtured a garden with a fish pond, a pizza oven, mosaic walkways, a sculptured gate, a redwood tree, a cherry blossom tree and murals on both sides of the alley. The forest is a haven of rest in an urban jungle.
As we ended the interview, the police officer looked at me with a new sense of understanding.
“I am trained to see the problems of the neighborhood. Every night I go home feeling burned out and depressed. I have learned something today…to see the good in the midst of all the bad.”
If you want to focus on all the bad things you will find lots of them. There are plenty of good things waiting to be found here that will lift your spirit whether it is a Tenderloin National Forest, just stopping and hearing the story of a person who is living on the street, or maybe even getting your wallet back.
Story updated February 13, 2019:
*this number (3,680) is for people living/sleeping on the street in the whole of District 6 as of 2017 (hsh.sfgov.org)