Monday, July 20, 2009
I want to tell you about The Tenderloin. My version of the Tenderloin. The Tenderloin can be a rough place, but I see a lot of little miracles here every day. I certainly do not want to romanticize the difficult things that the people of the Tenderloin have to deal with. But, I have seen a lot of beauty here, a lot of kindness, I have seen heartbreak and I have seen joy.
I am the Advocacy Coordinator at St. Anthony Foundation. Once, after introducing myself as St. Anthony's Advocacy Coordinator, I asked a group of high school aged volunteers if any of them knew what advocacy was. One young man raised his hand and said, "isn't that when you, like, don't have sex, or something?" I don't know if he was thinking of "abstinence" or "celibacy" - he surely wasn't thinking about advocacy.
Some people think of advocacy as "standing up for someone else." It can be that. Sometimes, it is that. But I try to do advocacy so that I give people a chance to speak up for themselves. Shame is one of the most debilitating side effects of poverty. Some people are so ashamed of being poor, of being homeless, of having to eat in a soup kitchen, that they feel like they are somehow less than human just because they need help. The opportunity to get involved in advocacy, to stand up for yourself, to use your experience to help other people who may find themselves in your situation someday, is one of the most powerful ways to banish shame. I'm lucky to work for an organization that prioritizes providing direct services like meals, medical care, and shelter as well as working for social justice.
This year has been an especially difficult one for advocacy. Our city and state budgets are a mess, and health and social service programs are on the chopping block. Actually, these programs are on the chopping block every year, deficit or surplus, but this year, our state and city deficits are so large that we may actually see some permanent cuts to programs that really help to save people's lives: drug treatment, welfare programs, child health, mental health, senior services, and homeless services. And, these cuts are coming at a time when more and more people need help.
One of the Governor's staff people said this to me recently: "When times are tough, hearts must harden." I'm sorry, but that sentiment just is not going to fly in the Tenderloin. What I see is that when times are tough, people are working even harder than ever to help each other out. City Hall and the Capitol really need to catch up to the Tenderloin in the heart-softening department.
One of the places in the Tenderloin that really makes my heart feel mushy is St. Boniface Church. During the day, the church opens its doors to people who simply need a safe place to be. The sound of the parishioners saying the rosary intermingles with the sound of snoring from the homeless folks asleep in the pews. Those snores are prayers, too: prayers of thanks for the sanctuary of the church, prayers of peace from those who have so little of it in their daily lives.
I could tell you stories from the Tenderloin that could make you cry. But I really see the Tenderloin as a place of resilience rather than a place of desperation. People who have been beaten down by life, who have faced challenges that seem insurmountable are here, pushing through every day, trying and trying to make it despite living through things that would make most of us give up. Please come visit us sometime, with your heart and your mind wide open. You'll see things that break your heart, but I guarantee that you'll also meet people who inspire you with their resilience and their spirit, despite the fact that they have nothing but the clothes on their backs and the strength in their hearts.