With the blessing of city government, a pair of nuns will soon move their soup kitchen from a tiny space in the Tenderloin to a corner of the Mission District that has felt the brunt of the housing crisis in San Francisco.
But they still have to make good with their neighbors.
The San Francisco Planning Commission unanimously approved a proposal Thursday for the nuns to move their soup kitchen from 54 Turk St., a small building at the edge of the Tenderloin, into a vacant space on the bottom floor of a building at 16th and Mission streets.
“We’re thanking everybody,” said Sister Marie Valerie, who came from their headquarters — their Mother House — in Chicago. “God answered our prayers.”
The proposal was met with criticism from upstairs neighbors who own condos inside the building, as well as the developer of the adjacent property who went on to say that the soup kitchen would “cast a long, dark shadow” over the neighborhood.
The dissenters claimed that the soup kitchen would bring more homeless people to an area that has already seen in increase in tent encampments.
“Next time we will see them, we will talk very nicely with them,” Sister Valerie said. “I’m sure they will change their minds. We don’t want to fight.”
The trouble started for the nuns last year, when the nuns were facing an extreme rent hike from their home and workplace on Turk Street. However, inspirational speaker Tony Robbins spared them from possible eviction when he learned of their plight in February and negotiated a deal with the landlord to keep the rent low for a year.
Robbins said he then purchased the building in the Mission where the nuns could open a soup kitchen.
“I think it’s better to have fresh food there than people on the street,” Robbins said.
He and philanthropist Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, had packed into the small soup kitchen Thursday morning to drum up support for the nuns ahead of the Planning Commission meeting.
During the lengthy hearing that afternoon, about a dozen neighbors spoke out against the project. Many said they were supportive of a soup kitchen in the neighborhood, but not one beneath their homes.
The affordability crisis in San Francisco has brought many homeless people to the sidewalk outside their doorstep.
On only her fourth day in office, Supervisor Hillary Ronen, whose district includes the Mission, threw her support behind the soup kitchen at the hearing.
“I know neighbors are frustrated by the homeless crisis that is raging in all of San Francisco, and the Mission has been forced to bear the brunt of this crisis,” Ronen said. “I believe that the sisters’ work is essential to solving this crisis. They are not making the problem worse.”
The planning commissioners and department agreed.
Planning Director John Rahaim described the soup kitchen as a “managed situation [that] will actually improve the situation on this block.”
While the neighbors complained about the long lines that could form outside the soup kitchen, commissioners Dennis Richards and Christine Johnson pointed out that the lines would be no different than the ones formed outside nightclubs or fancy restaurants in the neighborhood.
“They’re paying 100 bucks for two people to eat, these people are paying nothing,” Johnson said.
And yet the soup kitchen is an integral part of life for some.
Every weekday, Lubungu Mapanda, his pregnant wife and seven children wake up before 6 a.m. in a shelter for homeless families near Alamo Square.
The 34-year-old father, who struggles to support his family working as an Uber driver, drops his children off at a nearby school before heading to the Tenderloin soup kitchen, where he volunteers alongside the nuns.
“I take them to school in the morning, and then I come here and help the sisters,” said Mapanda, who first moved to San Francisco from the Congo when he was 14. “When I don’t volunteer, this is… the way we eat.”
The sisters plan to move to the soup kitchen once renovations are complete in the coming months.