Building Community Leaders and Safer Streets 

By TLHIP, Precious Listana & Tenderloin Safe Passage team

Every day, at 3 p.m.

you will find Kate Robinson, the Director of Tenderloin Safe Passage, standing at the southwest corner of the intersection of Turk and Hyde. This is considered one of the least safe corners in the entire neighborhood, where on a good day only about 50% of community members feel safe walking during the day. She will be dressed in a vibrant, teal vest with the Safe Passage logo, and carrying a walkie-talkie. 

As the children continue toward Boeddeker Park, at each corner of their walk, they will be greeted by another team in teal vests. If you didn't know better you might think they were crossing guards, the same ones that regulate traffic at busy intersections. You might even think that they were city-funded or associated with a school. And you'd be wrong.

These are residents and volunteers. Residents who have raised their own children in a community where crime, drug use, homelessness, and extreme mental health needs have been constant. But it is also a community that is active, connected, caring, and supportive in spite of all the challenges. It is out of this environment, like other urban settings before, that this group has been working to develop a culture of safety in the Tenderloin. This is a group that believes everyone in the neighborhood -- kids, adults & seniors -- deserve a safe walk home.

Beyond Impressions

The Tenderloin is one of San Francisco's notorious neighborhoods. Tourists historically have been advised not to visit, some residents don't feel safe leaving their own homes and kids are raised to be vigilant of their surroundings in a way other parents may have a hard time imagining.

Pervasive drug dealing and public drug use are some of the major challenges of this community. This is not a surprise. Such challenges are extremely prevalent in low-income neighborhoods, and are the lived realities of many Americans. And yet, in spite what the statistics show, it doesn't fully paint the picture of the rich culture of the Tenderloin. Because to appreciate the Tenderloin, you have to find a way in, and not let your first impression be your only.

Keys partners who helped to launch Safe Passage

1. La Voz Latina supported the mothers who were requesting the community's help with developing a culture of safety in the Tenderloin

2. Tenderloin Boys & Girls Club worked with their youth leaders to walk younger kids home at the end of program day

3. Community Housing Partnership integrated their Safe Haven project

4. YMCA surveyed after-school program needs and worked with La Voz to identify the safe route

5. Chinatown Community Development Center brought in a safety training program & the first grant for this project

6. Tenderloin Community Benefit District agreed to provide the space for the Safe Passage program to start initially

From the Community

Tenderloin Safe Passage was started in 2008, by residents for the residents. Initially, the idea of Safe Passage blossomed from a resident-led coalition that addressed drugs, violence and pedestrian safety. With a growing momentum to develop a neighborhood culture of safety, the mothers of La Voz Latina went to a committee meeting of the Tenderloin Community Benefit District, to ask for partnership in starting a new initiative.

In 2011, Safe Passage received a small grant of $8,000, through Bay Area LISC which funded safety vests & Kidpower Training for over 30 mothers. In 2012, with another small grant (a $15,000 Metlife award for their positive community & police partnership), Safe Passage was able to hire their first coordinator, enabling them to get a Corner Captain program started. This, mostly volunteer, program served 50-60 kids from nearby schools. By 2014, Safe Passage became a fiscally sponsored project of Community Initiatives after receiving crucial seed funding from Tenderloin Health Improvement Partnership (TLHIP).

Sustaining Safety 

When TLHIP was established in 2014, a key concern that kept rising to the top of all discussions was residents feeling unsafe in their own community. Safety was, and has been, something that everyone is grappling with, but nobody is able to solve on their own.  TLHIP, led by the Saint Francis Foundation and Saint Francis Memorial Hospital, provides a framework for organizations to collaborate, co-create solutions & deliver a deeper impact by aligning priorities, resources & activities creating pathways to health for residents. TLHIP saw an opportunity to lift up the Safe Passage program as a bright spot in the community.

Over the course of the first funding year from the Saint Francis Foundation in support of TLHIP, the Safe Passage program was identified as a community asset with potential for an even larger impact. The community continued to believe in the potential of Safe Passage, the lessons that were being learned, and the small program that had offered safety, if only for brief period, five-days-a-week to children in the neighborhood.

Scaling Up

With the support of the TLHIP advisory committee and TLHIP partners, Saint Francis Foundation has provided game-changer funding for the last four years, from 2014 through 2017. This investment in the Safe Passage program, including support with measurement, evaluation, and leadership -- has allowed the program to evolve and scale up into the program that it is today. When TLHIP first worked with Safe Passage, the program was serving an estimated 1,000-2,000 kids a month stationed at four corners.

As part of the TLHIP co-funding strategy, the Saint Francis Foundation brought in the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development as an early funder, and most recently Sutter Health CPMC to support the Safe Passage Program as well. This co-investment supported the Safe Passage program to expand their network and receive city-wide support, a huge milestone for their program. 

Other Crime includes: disorderly conduct, driving under the influence, drunkenness, fraud, 
kidnapping, loitering, prostitution, vandalism, warrants

Things haven't come easy for Safe Passage and the job is difficult. Daily, residents, parents and volunteers stand on some of the most tense corners in the neighborhood - surrounded by negative urban hazards like public drug use, injection, smoking, public intoxication, vehicle traffic speeding through the neighborhood, drug dealing on the corners, and individuals experiencing acute mental health episodes. 

In 2016, Safe Passage lost its then Executive Director which began a long period with a gap in leadership. In spite of the rocky times, program director Kate Robinson kept the program running, every day showing up for the children, operating in a small shared office space in Boeddeker Park. 

Stronger Together

In late 2016, TLHIP staff met with Kate Robinson and the Interim Executive Director for the Tenderloin Community Benefit District (TLCBD), Steve Gibson, and worked out an arrangement that would allow the two community-serving organizations to merge. Together, they supported an agreement that brought the Safe Passage Program & staff into the TLCBD.

By joining hands with Safe Passage, the Tenderloin Community Benefit District brought a core neighborhood-serving program into their operations, in addition to the cleaning services they already provided. Together, they are grounded in their mission: "to lead the evolution of the Tenderloin into a vibrant community for all". 

Under the leadership of Gibson, the TLCBD has broadened its role within the Tenderloin community, and emerged as a leader in quality of life issues that neatly align with the work of TLHIP. This year the TLCBD moved into 512 Ellis Street in the heart of the neighborhood it serves and has become a hub of community with its meeting space and resident-involved operations and programming.

The Growth of Safe Passage and the Tenderloin Community Benefit District

Today, Safe Passage has expanded programming and provides two shifts: morning and afternoon. The afternoon shift, still led and managed by Kate Robinson, has been active since 2014. Beginning at 2:30 PM each weekday, corner captains walk from the Tenderloin Community Benefit District Office on Ellis with their walkie-talkies, bright-colored vests and signs to their respective corners.

Current 17-block route for the afternoon shift. Seven corners along this map were identified by Corner Captains and the Roaming Team as “priorities,” filled with people selling or publicly using drugs. These are events that have the potential to cause traumatic experiences for kids, especially for the high numbers of children walking from school to different after-school programs.

Corner Captains serve as a positive intervention from the negative behaviors and other consequences of drug dealing, drug use, and traffic-related injuries. “It feels good that I am helping these kids not see all this bad stuff all the time,” said Richard, a Corner Captain for the past 7 months.

In the afternoon, Corner Captains prioritize crossing kids, seniors and anyone who needs assistance. That was not the case before August 2016. Before then, Corner Captains only crossed kids. But with a growing team, Safe Passage is serving more people in the Tenderloin and increasing their positive presence on these high-risk corners.

Safe Passage Senior

In 2016, Safe Passage also received its first Vision Zero grant to support efforts at reducing pedestrian injuries from vehicle accidents. This grant was the seed to the morning program (Senior program) that has grown the impact of Safe Passage even further.

Greg Moore, the lead for the senior program has years of experience with senior-serving agencies in the Tenderloin. He started as a Safe Passage volunteer. “While I recognized the importance of Safe Passage’s efforts to help ensure safety for children,” said Greg, “I began volunteering with the organization with a hope of adding efforts to help ensure the safety of seniors.” Greg is very aware of a key issue in the Tenderloin: many seniors do not feel safe leaving their homes. So this is where he and Safe Passage's Senior Program are working to change that perception and the reality of safety on the street.

Safe Passage Senior program begins each morning at 8:30 AM, with a team of Corner Captains. On their way to their posted corners, they greet their fellow neighbors with messages like “Good-Morning” and “Have a safe day”.  As soon as the Corner Captains arrive at their intersections, the Corner Captains kindly ask those clogging the sidewalks to make space for people walking.

Despite the initial resistance of drug dealers and others engaged in negative activities on the sidewalk, the Corner Captains have won them over through respectful persistence. And as the lights turn green, Corner Captains step into the crosswalk holding their signs in their right hand and pedestrian clicker in the the left. Some pedestrians will offer kind greetings of gratitude, and some will not.

“When we are greeted with negativity, we try to understand that these people are not mad at us,” said Greg, “instead, they are using us to vent, and we can give them a friendly community presence in spite of what they're going through or experiencing.” 

Residents Leading the Evolution

These days, Safe Passage has evolved into a dynamic program offering multiple shifts each day, serving an average of 4,000+ people each month. In 2016, the program offered Safe Passage to an estimated 71,895 people . The multiple program shifts offer an expanded impact to as many as 14 -15 corners of the Tenderloin neighborhood each day; most of them with lots of negative activity and high crime rates. 

TLHIP has helped catalyzed this change. "TLHIP not only gave Safe Passage its start as a daily program," said Kate, "but it also provided guidance, partnership, and growth through the collective impact model."

Since 2014, TLHIP has proudly invested close to $400,000 in Safe Passage. This opened doors for them to scale their impact in tandem with the TLCBD. Now, they can hire more Tenderloin residents as paid corner captain staff, provide volunteer stipends, and develop a robust morning program. 

The program now covers a larger swath of the neighborhood and teams are serving twice the population they did when TLHIP began working with Safe Passage.

Looking back, the growth of Tenderloin Safe Passage is rooted in their mission to develop a culture of safety starting with the residents. Today, they are providing new resident workforce opportunities and pioneering a new model of resident leadership. An interview with Betzy, a corner captain for 6 months, said that Safe Passage has developed her into a "passionate, consistent role model" in the Tenderloin. 

Not only is Safe Passage safely crossing kids & seniors throughout the day, but they are building resident leaders along the way.

If you are looking for an opportunity to learn more about the diversity & dynamic culture of the Tenderloin, come & volunteer with Safe Passage

In addition to the core programming, Safe Passage is also playing a key role in several projects, including:

1. Turk-Hyde Mini Park Activation: Developing a more vibrant park through corner captain activation

2. Safer Taylor Street: Creating maps to identify neighborhood negative activity

3. Tenderloin Wellness Trail: Improving sidewalk safety by connecting all the parks in the Tenderloin 

I am very passionate, consistent and a role model as a Corner Captain.

Betzy, Corner Captain 

For more information, contact: 

Jennifer Kiss
Saint Francis Foundation

Will Douglas
Saint Francis Foundation


Tenderloin Health Improvement Partnership (TLHIP) is a multi-sector collective impact partnership committed to improving health and well-being in the Tenderloin by aligning priorities, resources and activities to create pathways to health for residents.

Led by the Saint Francis Foundation and Saint Francis Memorial Hospital, TLHIP provides a framework to better coordinate between institutions, co-create solutions and deliver a deeper impact. Since 2014, TLHIP has organized a strong, multi-sector partnership and funded innovative, community-based solutions to create a healthy, vibrant, and safe neighborhood and end the cycle of poor health.