It's a 2:54 on a sunny Thursday afternoon in the gang-ridden Tenderloin district of San Francisco, and community volunteers wearing lime-green and orange vests are patrolling an 11-block stretch. Their mission is to keep area schoolchildren safe from drug dealers, gangbangers and other threats as the kids walk to their afterschool activities.
Called the “corner captains,” they are the mothers of the students as well as other volunteers participating in the Safe Passage initiative. Cool and collected, they keep watch for an hour each weekday. Earlier this year, an intersection in this area, Turk and Leavenworth, was the site of a double shooting on an early Monday afternoon.
The children walk with a parent or in small groups along sidewalks that are painted to resemble the yellow brick road in the Wizard of Oz. Some of the kids thank the volunteers as they pass.
The program, part of a larger initiative called the Tenderloin Health Improvement Partnership, is funded by the St. Francis Foundation, the philanthropic arm of St. Francis Memorial Hospital. Its leaders have worked to get more police on the streets, and its community organizers have negotiated with local gangs to keep children secure during the Safe Passage time window. The broader initiative has received $1 million from the hospital's foundation in each of the past two years.
“It's not easy, but for the most part (the gang members) do respect the kids,” said Patricia Zamora, area director of the Boys & Girls Club of San Francisco. “Now it's expanding to elderly and community walks, which wouldn't have been possible without the initial funding. We could never get the traction to sustain the volunteers.”
Dignity Health, which owns St. Francis Memorial, is one of a number of hospitals and health systems across the country targeting funds to address societal ills such as poverty, violence, hunger, poor nutrition and lack of housing. While not-for-profit hospitals have always been expected to offer programs that improve health or increase healthcare access, that work has traditionally focused on training new doctors, conducting research and providing charity care for the poor and uninsured. Critics, joined by some health system leaders, argue that hospitals can and should do more to address broader health issues in their communities.