A year of setbacks and opposition did not deter a trio of French nuns from following their calling from God – feeding those most in need.
The nuns have campaigned for some ten months to move a soup kitchen into the ground floor commercial space of a condominium building at 1928 Mission St. between 15th and 16th streets, and on Thursday those efforts were rewarded when the San Francisco Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny an appeal to stop the kitchen from opening.
“It’s a blessing,” said a smiling Sister Marie Benedicte, of the Fraternite of Notre Dame, referring to the Commission’s vote. The nuns’ lawyer, Tom Tunny, said that the soup kitchen will now likely open within the next six months.
The nuns and their supporters successfully argued that the Mission building, located next door to a homeless shelter and a block away from a Single Room Occupancy hotel, is the right fit for their endeavor.
Some 60 people that included neighbors, faith leaders, city officials and community service providers showed up to speak in the nuns’ favor, filling the Commission’s meeting room to capacity. Dozens more were directed into an “overflow” room in City Hall, where they awaited public comment.
After operating and living in a Tenderloin soup kitchen for eight years, the nuns were displaced last February following a 60 percent rent increase. News of their impending eviction prompted altruism from multimillionaire life coach Tony Robbins, who offered to buy the nuns the space in the Mission to ensure that their services continue.
In November, about a dozen condo owners who live in the building and a neighboring business filed a request for discretionary review, which threatened to thwart the nuns’ plans to serve the Mission’s low-income populations at that location.
At the Planning Commission, opponents expressed concerns that the soup kitchen would attract “hundreds of homeless people into the immediate area,” in a neighborhood already struggling with a large homeless population.
“It’s a noble project, but this is not the right space,” said a neighbor who gave his name as David. In testimonies filed with the Planning Commission, several condo residents said they were worried about long lines forming outside of their building.
They suggested that the nuns consider a mobile soup kitchen in the form of a food truck, and asserted that the nuns had not done enough research to show that a need for the service exists in the Mission.
But a report by the San Francisco Food Security Task Force showed that 31 percent of Mission residents do not know where their next meal will come from.
Laura Guzman, director of homeless services at the Mission Neighborhood Health Center, said the need for additional services in the Mission is dire – some 250 people trek “from Capp and 16th streets to the Tenderloin daily for lunch or dinner” at existing social services there, she said.
“There’s never a good place for our services,” she said.
During public comment, homeless advocates pointed out that a soup kitchen not only serves those living on the streets, but also stabilizes low-income families and seniors on the brink of homelessness.
Tunny, the attorney, said that they had done extensive outreach in the neighborhood and were collaborating with other social service organizations. The nuns, he said, planned to work with the building’s homeowners association to address the tenants’ present and future concerns.
“The sisters run a tight ship,” he said, adding that their operation in the Tenderloin had been a success for almost a decade.
Sister Marie Benedicte and two other nuns stewarding the soup kitchen may not have been able to convince all of the homeowners who opposed them of that, but the outpouring of support they received during the hearing was enough to earn the Commission’s blessing.
“I have a hard time seeing the difference between this and any other restaurant that has lines and serves take-out,” said the Commission’s vice president, Dennis Richards, who promised to not only support the nuns with a donation, but to also to try their food. “The only difference is the clientele.”
But the hearing that spanned some three hours gave insight into what many called a humanitarian crisis – for months, Mission residents have been organizing to address a sudden influx of tent encampments on their sidewalks, which many associated with an increase of criminal activity.
Frustrations became palpable at the hearing as many spoke of their experiences living on an “already very distressed block.”
“I’m sexually harassed every day when I go home,” said a resident of the building who gave her name as Joanna. “People smoke crack on our doorstep every day.”
She and many other residents of the building applauded the nuns for their work, but said that their choice of location was inappropriate.
“Our building is filled with caring, normal people who invested their life’s savings into it,” said Joanna.
Brandon, another resident of the building, said that “it’s easy to support something when no sacrifice is expected of you,” referring to the some 42 letters of support and a petition with over over 20,000 signatures received by the Planning Department in favor of the soup kitchen.
But those who had witnessed the nuns in action in the Tenderloin said that their service improved the lives of both housed and unhoused community members.
Retired Tenderloin Police Captain Gary Jimenez said he met the nuns in 2008 and attested to the positive impact that their presence had in the Tenderloin in terms of “cleanliness and orderliness.”
“I can tell you this is what the 1900 block of Mission Street needs – a positive influence,” he said.
Patrons of the nun’s Tenderloin soup kitchen said that their work often instilled hope in those who had fallen on hard times, including one homeless woman named Melody.
“The love they bring with them knows no income brackets, and the spirit of helpfulness and cooperation lingers long after the sisters are tucked away for the night,” said Melody.