Last weekend was the annual City Impact Conference in the Tenderloin. According to the SF City Impact website, the Tenderloin district is the poorest district in San Francisco. It is one square mile with over 35,000 people and 4-6,000 additional homeless. One of the most striking facts was that the Tenderloin averages 3 MAJOR crimes EACH hour. I went to the conference knowing the statistics, and expecting to feel uncomfortable and unsafe at times. This was my first time at an Outreach where I was more than a behind-the-scenes helper. My exposure to homeless people is passing them on the street or wondering when I see one with a cardboard sign, if I should give them some change?
When you enter the tenderloin, practical reasons require you to look where you are walking. The smell is mostly stale urine mixed with fresh marijuana. The aroma permeates the streets so deeply, at first I wondered if I would get a “contact high”. There are residents on every street, and as we walked toward the conference center, I wondered about the story each person had. God has made us so uniquely individual, and although there can be many similarities in a situation that brings a person to their knees on the streets of San Francisco, I was surprised that I felt an immediate interest in knowing each one of these people and finding out what their personal story was. Sometimes we walk through life, regardless of our social status and feel like we are “unseen”. I wanted to grab their hand and whisper to each person I passed, “I see you.”
Once we were seated in the Warfield Theater, we got an introduction to the services City Impact provides. This ministry that has grown out of one man’s desire to help, now serves the Tenderloin by providing resources like: A Rescue Mission, a Thrift Shop, Medical Clinic, Christian School, Breakfast Café, and also adopts different buildings to minister to the residents through food delivery and Bible study, etc. After the intro, we heard from a wonderful speaker who essentially told us that righteousness does not come from the acts you do, so when we were released to serve, that we should carry an attitude of righteousness or the work we do is meaningless to God. The conference leader was prepping us for our locations and it suddenly struck me like a lightening bolt, I might have to talk to people! (Just for a bit of perspective- I was held back in Kindergarten because I was so shy.) Shyness has been a life-long charachteristic of mine and I couldn’t believe I got all the way down into the middle of the Tenderloin without thinking once, that I was going to talk to people today! It reminded me a bit of child birth. Once you are half way through labor, there is no turning back… I felt virtually helpless, so I put on a happy face and we grabbed our lunch bags and hit the streets.
If they gave an award for most awkward volunteer, I am sure I would win by a landslide. I had no idea what I was doing, no idea how to answer questions, and I stayed largely in the middle of the tent watching what others were doing. I tried to step in and help if someone needed a highlighter or a particular page and finally I got an assignment to write on post it notes. Although I have to admit I was more of an observer than a helper, I was still able to connect with the residents of the Tenderloin and learned a lot about them. The tent I was working in was called “social and legal services” and was essentially a referral tent. The individuals came for an array of needs, mainly housing. The inquires also included information on probation, domestic violence, employment, dental care and social security info. Many people not only asked for information, but wanted to talk to someone. Some residents clearly had mental illness, physical ailments or addictions. A few people walked up to our tent and said, “what do you have to give me?”. There was a range of people who were sincerely seeking help and a population that seemed incapable of accepting help unless it was a hand out. It was clear to me that God did not call City Impact to discriminate among who deserved help, but to serve the community broadly and make changes through building relationships with the community as a whole.
If you stop and truly take a moment to see a person on the street, you see a life. Instead of judging or wondering how they got to such a disgusting place and why they don’t want to get themselves out of it, look a little deeper. Don’t just wonder if you really should dig in your purse when traffic stops uncomfortably close to the panhandler. Look at them, see them and realize that they are people. Some have big, unfulfilled dreams; some have wicked senses of humor; some are incredibly charming; some barely surviving; some are parents.
Earlier that morning when I woke up, I had considered not going. I was nervous about a new environment, afraid I wouldn’t be able to really help. I had no idea I would leave my heart (with the people of Tenderloin) in San Francisco. I didn’t have a lot of expectations, but I was entirely unprepared for the result. The residents of the Tenderloin are people in need. The faces I saw, left imprints on my heart, and I didn’t want to leave when it was time to go home. I felt dirty and tired, but I still didn’t want to go home, it felt so hollow to just go back to my comfy life while others live daily in pain and need. After a day spent in the inner city, I really wanted a shower, but I was afraid if I washed off the grime and sweat of my day, that I would forget the experience and the people and life would go back to being business as usual. Lucky for me, you can’t wash off the Tenderloin.