Sisters Marie Benedicte (left) and Marie Valerie make a case for their soup kitchen, proposed to move in to 1930 Mission st., at a neighborhood meeting called to address homelessness. Photo by Laura Waxmann

Residents in the northeastern Mission District are forming a community group to push local government toward ending homeless encampments in the area, while a pair of nuns displaced from the Tenderloin tries to gather support for a soup kitchen in the neighborhood that neighbors fear will only attract more homeless.

The nuns are Marie Benedicte and Marie Valerie of the Fraternite Notre Dame Mary of Nazareth, and their appearance surprised even Andrew Presley, a resident of Natoma Street and one of the organizers of a neighborhood meeting on Monday night.

After facing a 60 percent rent increase last February at the Turk Street soup kitchen that the nuns operated for eight years, multimillionaire life-coach Tony Robbins stepped in to help, buying the ground-floor unit of a condo building at 1930 Mission St., located next door to the Navigation Center, a transitional shelter for the homeless.

There, the nuns had planned to open a new soup kitchen to serve the neighborhood’s low-income residents.

But neighborhood opposition – primarily from other residents in the building – has stalled the soup kitchen from opening shop. On Monday night, they attended a meeting at a studio on 15th Street to form a neighborhood organization to clean up the Mission.

Presley told the neighbors that he coordinated a meeting on December 20 with the Mission’s newly elected supervisor Hillary Ronen, who will take office in January, and Jeff Kositsky, head of the Department on Homelessness and Supportive Housing, the agency heading the homeless encampment resolution efforts in the Mission. Neighbors would then have a chance to confront leaders with their concerns directly.

Gianina Serrano owns the confection shop Sixth Course, around the corner from the proposed soup kitchen and downstairs from Monday night’s meeting. She said that when she was approached last week by the nuns she supported their mission, and then invited them to the meeting. 

The nuns are gathering signatures from local residents and businesses in support of their soup kitchen, which will be considered by the Planning Commission at a hearing next month. The soup kitchen, they said, is about taking care of the community.

“We don’t just feed the homeless – we feed low-income people, a family who is out of money at the end of the month,” said Sister Marie Benedicte. “If you provide them with food, maybe they can pay their rent, and they don’t arrive on the streets.”

The nuns listened intently as many neighbors wondered if a soup kitchen in the area would not only further lessen their quality of life by attracting more loitering to the already crime-ridden 16th and Mission street intersection, but also decrease property values in the area.

“We have invested our life’s saving in an apartment in this building,” said a resident of  1930 Mission St.  “I have a hard time imagining that if we want to sell, we wouldn’t be losing a large amount of money.”

“Even though the soup kitchen is having a positive effect on the community, it’s just not an attractive business for the building,” the man added.

Since August, various city departments have collaborated in a concerted effort to clear the Mission of its sprawling homeless encampments – one by one, many tents have been dismantled and their inhabitants moved into temporary shelters.

But Presley and others say they have seen little progress. Rather, the grime and crime has been pushed to their doorsteps, they said. Now, the neighbors plan to form a neighborhood association of sorts, to press city leaders to take action.

“If anything, things are worsening,” said a neighbor who gave his name as Jeffrey. “I’d really like to know, how can we track the progress […] and who should we hold accountable throughout this process?”

“David Campos said in September that every tent would be gone in December,” said Presley, referring to a promise made by the Mission’s supervisor.  Another resident, who gave his name as George, speculated that the Mission, in contrast to other neighborhoods, is a “containing ground” where street camping and criminal activity, to some extent, are tolerated.

Many of those present at the meeting said that they were not there to vilify the homeless. Rather, they complained of services being cut, a lack of shelter beds, as well as rampant drug use, feces and criminal activity on local sidewalks.

Neighbor Kelly Alberta said she has been confronted at knife-point close to her home, and criticized a laissez-faire approach by police when it comes to tackling crime in the area. “You have to wait for something to happen in order for somebody [to do something about it] – that’s troubling and that’s an issue.”

“We don’t want an attack on homelessness,” said Serrano. “I’ve seen it my whole life. I just want the city to help address this issue directly and do more of what needs to be done to really remedy the situation.”

After hearing their concerns, Sister Marie Benedicte pressed the neighbors to lead with compassion when addressing the homeless and disadvantaged in their neighborhood.

“When you love people, they change their ways,” she said. “If you reject them, that makes the situation worse,” she said.

Though some neighbors left before the meeting concluded, others said that the sister’s benevolence had swayed them to try a new, more compassionate approach to tackling homelessness.

“I was skeptical of the soup kitchen,” said neighbor Travis Bonnheim, adding that after hearing the nuns’ testimony, he is “fully supportive now.”

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  1. Regarding the author’s “containing ground” quote, I said CONTAINMENT ZONE – for crime, drug use, vandalism, prostitution, loitering, littering, debris, human waste, dilapidated vacant lots, and so on. You don’t see this in Pacific Heights, or most other City neighborhoods. I’m not speaking about the encampments; these other issues have been around for a long long time, and are much worse over the last 5-6 years. For some reason this wealthy City will not keep the Mission District streets clean and safe. George