The Tenderloin is a place to be avoided.
It’s full of those people who our parents always tell us to avoid. You’re meant to keep your head down, your bag close and to walk at a brisk pace as you go past them. If there’s a group of people gathered, it’s probably wisest to cross to the other side of the street.
Even better, just don’t come here.
Don’t subject yourself to the drugs and violence. You don’t want to see people shooting up or lighting their crack pipes in the doorways; you don’t want weed smoke blown in your face. You don’t want to see people prostituting themselves or have abuse shouted at you across the street. It’s a scary place.
And yet, I’ve never felt personally threatened. I walk out the doors, the relative safety of YWAM and feel no fear. These streets feel like home and, whilst I know I should be scared, I feel at peace and comfort when I’m out there. Obviously, I don’t take unnecessary risks such as going out alone after dark and we’re never allowed to purposefully go out on ministry alone but popping out to the corner store or the coffee shop isn’t an issue.
This week I’ve had two encounters on the streets with guys who have spoken to me about people being scared of them.
On Tuesday I was out doing Hot Chocolate ministry on Market Street (the main shopping street through the city). I walked past a guy in jeans and a red nintendo sweatshirt, unshaven, toothless, quite obviously homeless. I looked him in the eye and gave him a half smile. We walked past each other but after around 5 feet he turned and shouted, “Hey, thank you!” I was a little confused so we walked back towards each other. I asked him what he was thankful for and he said it was because I had looked at him, straight in the eye, rather than avoiding his gaze. I was a little astounded. I tried to explain that it was normal, that I wasn’t doing anything significant but he was adamant that he was really grateful.
Yesterday I was walking to the corner store and a homeless guy was conversing with some people (who didn’t look as homeless). I didn’t quite look at them, I was in a rush and didn’t want to interrupt their conversation. But this big African American homeless guy shouted after me, “You can look me in the eye, you don’t need to be scared you know!” And I shouted back that I wasn’t. Because I can genuinely say that I’m not.
It’s difficult to explain how scary this place is and yet how not scared I am. These people who we’re told to avoid our whole lives are beautiful, wonderful people who hold the very image of God within them. They are so similar to those of us who have a bed or a less obvious addiction.The Tenderloin is a community full of danger but also so much more closely knit that the idealised suburban utopias. A community that is violent but caring, angry and yet compassionate. Fear isn’t necessary.