Touring the Tenderloin

I was in San Francisco in March, taking pictures for John Buntin's May story about that city's efforts to clean up its roughest neighborhood, the ...
by | April 27, 2010 AT 3:00 AM

I was in San Francisco in March, taking pictures for John Buntin's May story about that city's efforts to clean up its roughest neighborhood, the Tenderloin district. John had been there a week or two before, and had provided me with a list of people and places to see. The city's plan, as I understand it, is to make the Tenderloin a safer place for its residents without destroying its character. (Last week, John wrote a blog post about a potential future for the Tenderloin.)

I had an appointment to meet up with two officers the next morning at 6:30 and spend much of the day with them as they walked the neighborhood. I arrived the night before and checked into one of the nicer hotels in the area. The streets and sidewalks were fairly busy at 10:00 in a light rain. Despite the wet weather, a lot of people were out, if not about.

Six or seven hours later, I was back on those same streets and sidewalks but the mood had changed. It was still dark, still wet, and there were still people on the sidewalks, although these people were mostly on the move. They had somewhere to go and something to do. But the ground was littered with the leftovers of the night and a lone city employee was doing his best to clean it up.

Two officers who are assigned to deal with the sizeable homeless population were going to take me along on their rounds and show me the places they had shown John two weeks earlier. As we started off, the conversation began, unremarkably, with comments about the weather. One of them remarked that he liked the rain because it made the streets clean again.

About an hour into our tour of the Tenderloin, we came upon a large woman, sitting alone on the sidewalk, with a thin clear plastic poncho as her main line of defense against the elements. The officers walked up and greeted her by name and she made no effort to get up off the cold ground. But she was very excited to share her extraordinarily good news.

That very day, after 12 years of homelessness, this woman was going to get a place of her own. All she had to do, she explained, was show up at a meeting later that day and meet with some people who would officially put an end to her living on the streets. The officers were clearly happy for her and encouraged her to be on time for her meeting. We left her sitting there on the sidewalk, smiling, and made our way back to the station.

"I Would Rather Smile"

Captain Dominic Celaya of the Tenderloin station has graying hair, cut not quite military short, and a thick dark mustache. He had been around these streets a while and looks every bit the man in charge. As he was on my list of people to photograph, I asked if he would step outside for his close up.

I pointed to a spot on the sidewalk just outside the station's door and asked him to stand there and look at the camera. Immediately, like so many people in this situation, he broke into a broad smile. But since I was looking to make a picture of a man fighting to save a neighborhood in trouble, I mentioned that perhaps it would be a better picture if he lost the smile. "I would rather smile" he said.

Captain-dominic-celayaCelaya told me of a fellow officer that was killed in the line of duty some years ago. The media got hold of a grim-faced photo of the fallen man, and ran with it. The Captain was distressed to think the world would associate his friend with the stern visage in the pages of the newspaper and on TV. If anything were to happen to Captain Celaya, and his photo ended up in the news, he wanted everyone to know that he loved his job and was happy to serve his community. He determined that the way to guarantee being remembered as a happy servant of the people was to always smile for pictures.

Housing Meeting No-Show

A few hours later, I was seeing the neighborhood from the backseat of an unmarked patrol car, still under the watchful eye of the same two officers. A call had come in requesting that we swing by the station and pick up a passenger. The passenger, it turned out, was a caseworker assigned to the woman seen earlier on the sidewalk. The caseworker had taken the day off to be with her daughter who was home on spring break. Word had reached her that the homeless woman had not shown up for her housing meeting. So we took her and her daughter aboard and went looking for the lady on the sidewalk. We found her right where we left her that morning.

The caseworker jumped out of the car with one of the officers while the other officer and I engaged the daughter in conversation in an effort to distract her from what was going on a few feet away. I wanted to protect her from the scene unfolding outside. But I was also anxious for her to see what a wonderful mother she had.

The homeless woman became agitated when confronted about her missed appointment and could not offer a coherent explanation for her absence. She leapt to her feet, downed what remained in a can of Colt 45, tossed the can over a fence, and began to run down the sidewalk, swearing her commitment to make amends and do what she needed to do.

When it was over and the mom was back in the car, I watched the woman striding down the sidewalk towards who knows what kind of future. Regardless of the outcome, I was in awe of the caseworker, her daughter, the two officers, Captain Celaya, and the lone sanitation worker picking up the bits of trash on the street. (Photos: David Kidd)

David Kidd | Photojournalist / Storyteller |