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San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood is in the heart of the city and serves as its most visible intersection of those with means and those without. 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, its residents struggled with many issues and complained that despite their on-going efforts, the neighborhood remained a low priority for policymakers. Activists and community organizations were pushing hard for safer and cleaner streets, healthier food options at local corner stores and more affordable housing options.  When the pandemic reached the city, the Tenderloin’s struggles intensified almost immediately.

In order to comply with social-distancing mandates, homeless shelters either closed completely or reduced capacity by more than 75 percent, leaving the neighborhood’s unhoused residents scrambling to find shelter. Camps quickly sprouted on sidewalks and the number of tents skyrocketed by more than 400 percent, according to data compiled by the city. Additionally, between January and August, the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s Office recorded nearly 500 deaths due to drug overdoses. That compares to 441 such deaths recorded in all of last year, according to the San Francisco Department of Public Health. 

 “During the pandemic a lot of positive, regular activity on the streets went away. Kids weren’t coming outside, businesses shut down and service providers were pivoting operations to meet endless needs,” said Fernando Pujals, a spokesman for the Tenderloin Community Benefit District. “In the absence of these positive rhythms, there was an increase in negative activity, a sense of lawlessness for some.”

Also, city leaders closed many streets throughout San Francisco fairly early in the pandemic so people could walk safely while maintaining proper social distancing but it was four months before the Tenderloin received its only street closure to date. As other neighborhoods were getting their second street closures, Tenderloin residents were left to muddle along crowded sidewalks as best they could. Organizations like The Tenderloin People’s Congress have stepped up and agitated for proper washing stations and street closures.

“The neighborhood had to come together in the last several months, and we see how transformative it can be especially when met with the resources to enact change,” Pujals said. “We are again seeing more positive activity in the neighborhood.”


The Future of the Tenderloin: What’s Next

The Tenderloin is family! Recently, SF Play Streets program coordinated with the Tenderloin Community Benefit District and other organizations to clean the streets and set up games for neighborhood kids. Riding bikes and playing with chalk are popular pandemic pastimes. (Courtesy of Felix Uribe)

The Tenderloin is … 

Often people will fill in the blank with a negative experience they heard/read about. What is it really like to call the Tenderloin home? I think about this quote from “The Winter of Our Discontent,” by John Steinbeck.

“I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life and never seen.”

Close to 30,000 people call the Tenderloin home and 3,000 are kids living within a .35-mile radius. What does a birthday celebration look like? Or family gatherings? 

What’s different about the Tenderloin is the neighborhood is a community. Everyone says hi to one another, helps each other and advocates for one another. If there is a need like crossing guards so kids can get to school safely, the Tenderloin doesn’t wait for funding. The residents mobilize and do it themselves. The Tenderloin is in the heart of the city and is the heart of the city. 

The Tenderloin is a place to heal.

The Tenderloin is where redemption waits. 

The Tenderloin is . . .
Poem by Felix Uribe

love 
accept 
forgive 
a city defined by its surface 
what does the heart say
we are love 
we accept 
and we forgive
we walk 
nothing to hide 
we walk 
with hearts to give 
we walk 
realizing  our 
mistakes have defined us 
so 
we love 
accept 
and forgive 
we walk

The Tenderloin is where diversity thrives and while the city is slow to serve, the residents step in and fill the void and it’s done with a smile. No matter how forgotten this neighborhood is, the Tenderloin will not allow itself to be defined by its shortcomings and will continue to fight for its residents to be seen and heard.


COMMUNITY RESOURCES

City Hope
City Hope is the livingroom for those without enough living space in the Tenderloin. We provide a trusted gathering place and creatively offer as many elements of home as possible for our neighbors on the margins.

The Tenderloin People’s Congress
The Tenderloin People’s Congress is an alliance of resident-based organizations dedicated to developing and sustaining the leadership of “traditional” Tenderloin residents. We believe a movement of bedrock resident activists is a best strategy against the onslaught of forces threatening the Tenderloin.

Resource Links
Policy Link | Bay Area Equity Atlas
The Bay Area Equity Atlas is a comprehensive data resource to track the state of equity across the region and inform solutions for inclusive prosperity.


Project Credits:

This project was a collaborative effort between CatchLight and Bay City News Foundation.

“The Tenderloin Is” Photography and Text by: Felix Uribe, CatchLight Local Fellow

Bay City News Foundation Team:
Publisher: Katherine Ann Rowlands
Editor: Kiley Russell
Designer: Chloe Lee Rowlands

CatchLight Local Initiative Visual Editorial Team:
Creative Direction and Visual Editors: Abby Connolly & Jenny Jacklin Stratton

Felix Uribe

Photos