A different perspective on San Francisco

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Milton’s Vayable experience in the Tenderloin was not my first homelessness tour. I’ve been on London walks run by Unseen Tours, a wonderful social enterprise which trains homeless people to become guides and earn an income showing people the city from their perspective. I was taken round east London by a man I’d walked past a thousand times; me en route to the office, him asking for change in the tunnels of the Underground station. I’d often wondered about who he was, how he got there, and how he survives. Going on his tour answered my questions and helped reshape my attitude to homelessness in London in a positive and constructive way. I’ve never knowingly walked past Milton (who also goes by the name Michael), but I was keen to meet him and learn about his situation.

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I’ve never been anywhere quite like the Tenderloin. At least not in a wealthy country. The Glide Memorial Church, where Milton is a regular fixture, hands out three meals a day to the Tenderloin’s homeless population. That works out at over 800,000 free meals a year, and when we arrive the line for food is stretching down the road and round the corner. As much as it’s unsettling seeing so many people prepared to stand hours in line, it’s reassuring to know that there are organisations established to help them.

Milton takes us on a walk round the Tenderloin. As a homeless man himself, he knows these streets and the people on them like the back of his hand. At one point, we see what appears to be the sale of drugs on a street corner and we wonder how this could happen so openly. Milton believes it’s due to an ongoing policy of containment. In other words, he believes law enforcement turns a blind eye to drug dealing and other social problems in the Tenderloin in order to contain them and prevent them spreading to wealthier, more touristy areas. If this is the case, it would make life easier for the authorities, but it doesn’t help those trying to combat violence, alcoholism and drug dependency among the Tenderloin’s homeless population.

Despite its problems, the Tenderloin is definitely worth visiting (although some may prefer to avoid the area at night). It’s full of beautiful if dilapidated buildings and marvellous hand-painted signs. The Tenderloin played a large role in San Francisco’s music history (Jerry Garcia and Miles Davis played and recorded here); the city’s LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) movement grew on these streets, and it was where many Vietnamese arrivals first moved to in the 1970s.

But the most memorable aspect of this Vayable experience is the guide himself. Some of Milton’s stories make for uncomfortable listening and I disagreed with some of his opinions. Some of his answers to my questions seemed to only raise more questions. But a homelessness experience in San Francisco is never going to be comfortable. It’s authentic and immersive, which means by its very nature it’s going to be challenging, provocative and occasionally upsetting. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a tour that gives a person living on the margins of society a chance to tell his stories and make a bit of money. It’s an example of the Vayable concept really making a difference.
Tenderloin photos by Megan Amaral on Flickr

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