Dispatch from a Tenderloin Kitchen

My team and I cook approximately 1,500 meals a day to help homeless people in the Tenderloin. I’ve done this long enough to put all the sights to words. The food containers we serve can be found for blocks, and even miles away from the kitchen, with just the veggies left untouched. The work is mostly thankless, and unfortunately doesn’t seem to improve the actual living conditions here. What the meal does offer is calories needed to simply make it to the next.

It’s important to note the entire neighborhood went through a 90-day State of Emergency this spring for how poor the conditions are here. For every COVID death, there are two overdose deaths—that’s three every day—among the other fatalities out here. The declaration expired, and the numbers we feed have gone up by the hundreds since summer hit.

Many people we serve are addicted, and will tell their life story to the open air. If you ever slow down and listen to this self-talk you’ll hear most of the time people are stuck processing a loss, a relationship, a trauma of some kind. Either that or they’re calling me fa**** as I pass by.

The sum of the emotional and physical scarring here is a product of institutional neglect. Real solutions to the problems do exist, and involve so many more different perspectives than just mine. As a community, regardless of how homelessness is understood, we are still without answers for how to genuinely change the current state of things.

Even still, there is a resiliency that runs through the Tenderloin. Strangers share blankets, music is blasted at all hours, and sometimes I get to get down with folks if they’re dancing on my walk to work. They’ll split their last cigarette as often as they ask for a dollar. So, if I’m going to ask anything here, it’s to speak on homelessness with a refreshed sensitivity. We are all people first, and we’re all a lot closer to addiction than godliness.

Inside the kitchen, I spend most of my time trying to work with the team to get out a daily meal. Those who have immigrated, been homeless, addicted, incarcerated—or all of the above—get the same chance to work in the kitchen together. We come from all backgrounds, pero soy el grande gringo en el TL. Some have taken kindly to that, and some haven’t, but that’s besides the point. The point is that prison culture is evident, and I play the street-life (just in the kitchen of course). I mean that behavior and action in the kitchen is often uncensored and requires a heightened awareness of what’s going on at all times. To play the street-life is to keep close with this culture but away from the games, and out of the prison.

That said, the biggest joy has been teaching assistants what happens during the entire cooking process of each dish. Slowly this has turned into teaching others how to cook. There’s an intersection of health and healing that exists in the creative space of cooking that has been so fun to watch unfold.

I’ve invested all I can to see if you really can build bridges through cooking. Through food you heal your body physically by meeting its basic requirements, heal relations by cooking for those hurt, and you can heal the community at large. I’ve needed all three at one point in my life. This is where living conditions can slowly be restored.

I first thought I could be unaffected by this environment with solid habits. I was wrong and this was naïve. Even with my habits, there’s a gravity to this pain that is unavoidable. Realizing that white cleaning vinegar smells just like black tar doesn’t sit so well. And that the shits on the sidewalk come from all species.

I’ve come around to accept that no one should have to tolerate this type of environment forever. There’s been enough here to contemplate over in just eight short months. All I can say for sure is no one goes very far without their next meal. So for now, that’s OK, and the priority will remain making it through every plate.

Time, space, resource, and Godspeed to the TL.