A friend of mine sent me this article last night and it pissed me off. This morning I decided to write an open response:
There is no denying that the Tenderloin is a rough neighborhood. The poverty, drug peddling, homelessness, and crime is very real. For those who aren’t used to it, it can be shocking just to pass through the area. Yet the neighborhood is home to one of the most diverse populations of people in the country- as well as the most youth living in San Francisco. These people endure the struggle of living in this neighborhood every day, and they don’t deserve to be exploited for shock value in a VICE magazine article.
I have worked with several different organizations in the Tenderloin for several years- starting with my job as an on-the-street outreach counselor for homeless youth in 2008- and I would never refer to my clients the way this so-called “social worker” has in the article. The way she describes her clients, the neighborhood, and the people in it rings of privilege and lack of empathy and true understanding. Her wording and descriptions match the stereotypes that most people have towards drug users, the homeless, and people of color- especially those stereotypes that are prevalent in San Francisco today. It’s an insult to the work that myself and many other dedicated individuals do in this community, as well as the people who live here.
The article fails to fully describe what it is this social worker even does- she boils down her job description to handing out small checks to clients so they can spend it “on whatever piece of crack they can find.” I don’t really understand how it is exactly that she’s supposed to be helping these people- or whether or not she even believes that she can. She describes them as begging, paranoid, dirty, and unable to function in society. Of course we know that these terms can describe many people who are on the streets, but it’s harmful to think of every person on the street in these ways. There are many words and methods she could have used to accurately describe this population that are way less damaging and derogative. The worst part about this story is that this woman seems to think she’s some type of tough warrior fighting for all these crazy bums on the street. Don’t go patting yourself on the back just yet, girl.
To dispel some of the vicious stereotypes and generalizations that are being perpetuated by this article, I’d like to give MY description of the Tenderloin and talk about my average workday.
Neighborhoods like the Tenderloin don’t just self-destruct by chance. The condition that it’s in right now is no coincidence. The Tenderloin is a containment zone- it is a place to house and control many of San Francisco’s unwanted residents. The reason they are unwanted is because San Francisco is a city that heavily relies on its tourism and beautiful architecture, landscape, and neighborhoods to attract people and income. Therefore, in order to keep the elite neighborhoods and tourist attractions exclusive to SF’s wealthier residents, the socially and economically worst of the worst are dumped in the TL. Within this neighborhood you can find the most housing and services for the homeless, the elderly, substance users, HIV patients, immigrants, parolees, and the mentally ill. When you mix all these populations in overcrowded settings and continue to marginalize and oppress them, the result is the chaos that now exists in the Tenderloin. This is done very intentionally. They don’t want a housing site for Arab immigrant families next to new condos in SoMa. They wouldn’t care to have an employment resource center for the homeless around the corner from the tourist traps on Pier 39. And the idea of mental health treatment services happening next door to a trendy North Beach café would have the whole neighborhood outraged. It’s much more convenient for the privileged to be segregated from the non-privileged, and most don’t want a reminder of the vicious poverty and inequality that exists within these 50 square blocks in the heart of San Francisco. Not only does this make these populations invisible to the hipsters and yuppies gallivanting around town, but it makes the prospect of having effective services for them seem pretty ridiculous. City officials will say they’re providing housing for the homeless, but when that “housing” is a dilapidated hotel room the size of a prison cell, inside an entire neighborhood full of buildings like that, how much of a step up is that from being on the street, really? Believe me when I say that if the city government really wanted to address and put a dent in these issues, they could. The money and resources are out there. I have to seriously question any type of “social worker” who claims to empathize with this population but has no real understanding of the concepts I just described.
On the other hand, the Tenderloin is a vibrant, active community and one of the most diverse in the city. You can find immigrants from Cambodia, Pakistan, China, Vietnam (part of the Tenderloin is historically referred to as “Little Saigon”), Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Yemen, Syria, Morrocco, Lebanon, and more. Yet in the VICE article, the social worker says that it’s one of 2 predominately black neighborhoods left in SF. Let’s get this straight; the Tenderloin is not a “black neighborhood.” There are a large number of African-Americans living in the Tenderloin but many of them are people who have been displaced from the dwindling black communities in the Bay Area and beyond. The Tenderloin is also home to the largest percentage of youth in San Francisco (SF has the lowest youth population out of any other major US city). There are several schools and afterschool programs and during the afternoons you can see large groups of happy children walking together. It’s also the scene of brilliant pieces of street art and murals, with many artists residing in the area. Believe it or not, there are also many excellent restaurants and shops in the Tenderloin that reflect the diverse flavor of its residents. It’s a place where people share struggle, and as a result there is a strong bond of solidarity within many people in the community. It’s a place where people still say hello to each other on the street. Where people help each other out through the non-stop pain, grief, and struggle they experience. Sometimes it gets ugly. But sometimes the struggle is beautiful.
That’s my outlook as I commute on the BART train to the city I can no longer afford to live in. Walking from Civic Center into the bowels of this concrete jungle, the belly of the beast, I do a lot of observing. I will see panhandlers selling Street Sheets or BART tickets, many of whom I know on a first-name basis and often stop to talk to. I will see people roaming the streets talking to themselves- reminders of the lack of accessibility to and concern for mental health care in this country. Store owners sweep up and get ready for business, struggling to compete with new and trendy businesses. A few people will be sleeping on streets or bushes and lawns of UN plaza- kind of ironic to see this in the shadow of City Hall. I have learned to keep an eye out for human shit on the sidewalk- nasty, but homeless people don’t own toilets, do they? It’d probably be a good idea for the city to build a few more public toilets but I’m not holding my breath on that one. I pass a few drug dealers- mostly young kids from Honduras who don’t speak English- doing their thing, and although I wish they wouldn’t push in front of my building I’m pretty sure that if they had the opportunity to make money another way, they would. Once I enter my building, I’m usually received with warm greetings from the residents I work with. I talk with them, spend time with them, give them referrals to services they need, educate and play with their children- they’ve accepted me and welcomed me into their community. This is something I don’t take lightly; most of the people I work with have never been able to trust anyone, even their own families, and especially service providers. Almost everyone I work with was born into poverty and homelessness. Some fell on hard times, maybe they picked up a drug habit, maybe they have a disability that keeps them from finding work, maybe they are undocumented and don’t qualify for the services they need. While I hope for them to take accountability for some of their actions, I don’t ever believe that their situations are entirely their own fault, nor do I believe that they deserve to live out the rest of their days at the bottom of the social totem pole - though the truth is that many of them will.
My job is special because I work with the youth, the one population who has the best chance of escaping the vicious cycle of poverty and homelessness. I have helped them deal with drug use in their families, violence, sexual abuse, crime and incarceration, and failing in the education system- on top of the regular problems adolescents deal with that are magnified because of their living situations. Some of the stories I’ve seen and heard have stayed with me and been deeply disturbing, but I help my clients deal with them and keep it moving. I don’t think that being a social worker in the TL has killed anything inside of me, as the headline of the VICE article would suggest- on the contrary my spirit and determination to make an impact on the people of this neighborhood are more alive than ever.
Lorian, the social worker in the VICE article, lists off her job duties and experiences like a soldier talks about combat missions in Afghanistan. She mentions that she got into social work to kill her own ego; well I’d say that there’s still some life in that fucker left. I wonder what’s more shocking to her, the things she sees, or the fact that she’s able to “deal” with them. I have to wonder how strong her motivation to help people really is. It sounds like the organization she works for is completely ineffective, and it sounds like she still has yet to have any real understanding of the issues facing her clients. I could see that. But I can’t allow myself to behave like that. Not when the crime and poverty in the TL has been tolerated (if not encouraged) by this city for as long as I can remember. Not when I’ve seen childhood friends, schoolmates, and neighbors end up washed up and strung out in this neighborhood. And not when bullshit articles are coming out and damaging the perception of what I do, what I stand for, and what the people of the Tenderloin live through every day.
Lorian, if you’re reading this, I want to tell you that I’ve met and worked with your type before. Ultimately, someone like you in this profession does more harm than good- especially when they go blabbing a whole bunch of bullshit to VICE magazine. If you’re going to stay in this field of work, I hope you educate yourself a little more, check your own personal privilege, and ask yourself how you’re really going to make a long-term difference in the lives of these people you claim to know and understand all so well.
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