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With a vest and a voice, helpers escort kids through San Francisco’s broken Tenderloin streets

In World
May 05, 2024

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Wearing a bright safety vest with the words “Safe Passage” on the back, Tatiana Alabsi strides through San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood to its only public elementary school, navigating broken bottles and stained sleeping bags along tired streets that occasionally reek of urine.

Along the way in one of America’s most notorious neighborhoods, she calls out to politely alert people huddled on sidewalks, some holding strips of tin foil topped with illicit drugs.

“Good afternoon, happy Monday!” Alabsi says to two men, one slumped forward in a wheelchair and wearing soft hospital socks and one slipper. Her voice is cheerful, a soothing contrast to the misery on display in the 50-block neighborhood that’s well-known for its crime, squalor and reckless abandon. “School time. Kids will be coming soon.”

Further along, Alabsi passes a man dancing in the middle of the street with his arms in the air as a squealing firetruck races by. She stops to gently touch the shoulder of a man curled up in the fetal position on the sidewalk, his head inches from the tires of a parked car.

“Are you OK?” she asks, before suggesting he move to a spot out of the sun. “Kids will be coming soon.”

Minutes later, Alabsi arrives at the Tenderloin Community Elementary School, where she is among several adults who escort dozens of children to after-school programs. The students hitch up backpacks emblazoned with Spider Man and the sisters of “Frozen,” then form two rambunctious lines that follow Alabsi like ducklings through broken streets.

The smallest ones hold hands with trusted volunteers.

Long known for its brazen open-air drug markets, chronic addiction, mental illness and homelessness, the Tenderloin neighborhood is also home to the highest concentration of kids in San Francisco, an estimated 3,000 children largely from immigrant families.

The neighborhood is rich with social services and low-income housing but the San Francisco Police Department also has seized nearly 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of narcotics in the area since last May. Of a record 806 overdose fatalities last year, about 20% were in the Tenderloin.

But amid the chaos is a vibrant community stitched together by differing languages that has found ways to protect its most vulnerable and deliver hope, something many say the city has failed to do. Officials have sent in toilets, declared a mayoral emergency and vowed to crack down on drugs, but change is glacial.

A group of mothers fed up with drug dealers started the efforts in 2008 after a child temporarily went missing. The Safe Passage program is now part of the Tenderloin Community Benefit District, a nonprofit funded in part by Tenderloin property owners who also cleans sidewalks, staffs parks and hosts community events.

Alabsi started as a volunteer after the Russian native moved to the United States from Yemen with her husband and sought asylum a decade ago. They joined her husband’s mother and his siblings, who had settled in the Tenderloin.

Life was not easy in their new homeland. Alabsi, 54, and her husband Jalal, both medical doctors, had to start over years into their careers. The mother of two despaired when her younger son began to count poop piles he spotted from his stroller on their walks home from daycare.

Then she learned of Safe Passage. At her husband’s urging, she signed up to volunteer to help spare the children the worst sights on their walk after school.

Many people, Alabsi says, respond politely or tuck away their drugs or scoot their belongings out of the way when she reminds them that school time is over. But others ignore the request. Some even get angry.

“It’s better to give nice smile and say good afternoon or good morning, to show people I am friendly,” said a laughing Alabsi, who is fluent in Arabic and Russian and speaks English with an accent. “I am not monster.”

The program’s safety stewards guide the students along the cleanest and calmest routes, redirecting them to avoid people acting erratically or overdosing. Sometimes stewards use their bodies to block the children from seeing things they shouldn’t, like a woman crouched between two cars, no longer able to control her bowels.

On a recent afternoon, two girls with ponytails sashayed across an intersection, talking about becoming TikTok stars one day, seemingly oblivious to a couple hunched over at a bus stop across the street, struggling to light up. As they walked, Alabsi blocked their view of smeared feces.

The girls, one in first grade and the other in second, were headed to the Cross Cultural Family Center, one of some half-dozen nonprofits that provide after-school programs for the K-5 kids.

Alabsi and her immediate family moved out of the Tenderloin but are still an integral part of it. Their son is in the elementary school’s fourth grade and Alabsi now manages the Safe Passage program.

She loves the mix of Latin, Asian, Arab and American cultures in the Tenderloin. The big hearts of residents who are striving for a better life is what “makes it special,” she said.

One recent Saturday, Alabsi worked at an Eid celebration at the neighborhood’s recreation center. She helped monitor the block that was closed to traffic for the day while greeting her sisters-in-laws, who had joined the festivities with their children.

When the celebration ended at 4 p.m., she left with her soccer-loving son, Sami, to drop off her vest and radio at the office. They chatted in Russian as they passed tents, sleeping bags and blankets, an abandoned microwave and lawn chair and a human-shaped lump under a blanket, shoes peeking out.

From loud speakers, the doo-wop of The Moonglows singing “Sincerely” soared prettily over gritty streets. On a pole was a flyer with photos of a missing daughter: “Mimi please call home,” read the April notice. “You are so loved.”

“We can change world in better way by our presence, by our examples, by our positive attitude,” Alabsi said. “Every year it’s little bit better and better and better.”


Associated Press journalist Terry Chea contributed to this report.

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