Thanksgiving in the Tenderloin

Thanksgiving Day Outreach provides warm meals for thousands

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Thanksgiving in the Tenderloin

Tenderloin community members register to enter the SFCI sit-down meal area.

Tenderloin community members register to enter the SFCI sit-down meal area.

Aylin Salahifar

Tenderloin community members register to enter the SFCI sit-down meal area.

Aylin Salahifar

Aylin Salahifar

Tenderloin community members register to enter the SFCI sit-down meal area.

By Aylin Salahifar, Carlmont High School

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Through their annual Thanksgiving Day Outreach, San Francisco City Impact (SFCI) delivers thousands of hot Thanksgiving meals to underprivileged members of the Tenderloin community.

A one-square-mile neighborhood, the San Francisco Tenderloin is home to nearly 30,000 people, 6,000 of whom are homeless. Although it is bordered by some of the wealthiest communities in San Francisco, the Tenderloin has been dubbed one of San Francisco’s most notorious districts due to its high rates of crime and poverty.

A quick search on Google brings up headlines containing the words “dangerous,” “drug dealing,” and “dirty.” On several tourist websites, the Tenderloin is listed as the number one place to avoid in San Francisco.

SFCI co-founders Roger and Maite Huang are trying to change that reputation, one individual at a time. Their mission is to intervene on behalf of the Tenderloin’s residents by providing basic human necessities and education to people in need.

For 35 years, they have been hosting the Thanksgiving Day Outreach as a way to extend a helping hand during the holiday season.

For Belmont resident Landra Chan and her family, this was their first experience volunteering with SFCI. Chan worked alongside her two young nieces, prepping to-go boxes with scoops of mashed potatoes.

“I think these events are super important in terms of giving back to the community and learning to appreciate what we have,” Chan said.

Throughout the day, volunteers offered attendees services such as medical relief, grocery bags full of pantry staples, and a sit-down dinner. Others worked tirelessly in the meal-prep kitchen, slicing bananas, making salad, and shredding turkey.

By the end of the day, volunteers distributed 500 grocery bags, served 300 sit-down Thanksgiving dinners, and hand-delivered 5,000 hot meals to homes.

Twins Rose and Rae Lavalley have been volunteering with SFCI for three years. Although they just graduated from Sequoia High School last year, they share a love for service that they hope to carry throughout life.

“Last year, we got to cut people’s hair and have conversations with them. Around here, you gain a different perspective of life, and it makes you respect people for their experiences,” Rose and Rae Lavalley said.

This gathering is not all SFCI does to serve the Tenderloin community.

They also collaborate with institutions such as the San Francisco City Academy, whose goal is to empower children in the inner city to excel academically, physically, and socially.

For SFCI staff member and Tenderloin resident Shaye O’Donnell, serving her community is a full-time passion. O’Donnell, who usually works in the SFCI Rescue Mission, spent Thanksgiving Day Outreach directing the grocery bagging station.

“This event gives the Tenderloin a sense of Thanksgiving Day community and helps people come together, even if some residents don’t have immediate family in the area,” O’Donnell said.

Although the Thanksgiving Day Outreach provides great relief to many who need a hot meal, 40-year Tenderloin resident and local hotel manager Roger* points out the limits of such events.

Roger, whose workplace is only a few feet away from SFCI’s sit-down meal area, expressed his frustration over the way the issues of poverty and homelessness are handled in San Francisco.

“Rather than dealing with the true problems, [like] mental health, poverty, and homelessness, the city sweeps the issue under the rug. They kick homeless people out of the way to make it look like the streets are clean and put together, rather than actually looking for a solution,” Roger said.

Each year, Roger watches as SFCI staff work together with Public Works to block off sections of the busy San Francisco street to make way for aid stations.

To do this, however, they have to clear the sidewalks of the hundreds of homeless who usually camp there.

“The city is making a containment zone out of the Tenderloin. They are pushing all the drug dealing, prostitution, and poverty into one small area while putting on this face of charitability. They need to treat the disease, not the symptoms,” Roger said.

On May 6, 2019, San Francisco’s mayor, London Breed, held her second neighborhood town hall in the Tenderloin Community School.

Similar to Roger’s concerns, members of the audience called for more advocacy for the homeless, including more 24/7 services and help for those suffering from mental illness, according to KTVU News.

Breed ended the night with assurances of change, but whether such changes will be implemented remains to be seen.

“We have to do better for you. That is why we’re here tonight. To talk about what doing better means,” Breed said.

Although the future of the Tenderloin remains undecided, the simplicity and warmth of coming together to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal were captured during SFCI’s Thanksgiving Day Outreach.

“Sitting together and enjoying a hot dinner, even if it’s with people you have never met and may never see again, that is the spirit of Thanksgiving,” Rose Lavalley said.

*Source chose not to reveal their last name

This story was originally published on Scot Scoop News on December 2, 2019.