San Francisco’s public school students had their last day of school on a recent Friday—and it was also Tenderloin resident King John G.’s final shift as a "corner captain" guiding traffic and fist-bumping kids at the corner of Turk and Leavenworth streets.
“This is my corner. The kids love me, when they come across—I know everybody in this neighborhood, and everyone knows me,” John said. “So when I’m not here? When they know I’m not here, you know someone gonna get their business done on this corner.”
Dubbed the "Mayor of the Tenderloin" by some peers, King is a six-year veteran of the Safe Passage Program, a group that escorts children and seniors through the chaotic corridors of the Tenderloin.
The program is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, says co-founder Kate Robinson, also director of the nonprofit Tenderloin Community Benefit District, which operates Safe Passage. The nonprofit also runs longer-term advocacy and outreach initiatives like the Safe Pedestrian Program.
The Tenderloin neighborhood is perhaps most well-known for its troubles, such as its position at the core of San Francisco’s fentanyl and housing crises. But the Tenderloin neighborhood also has the highest density of children in San Francisco and is a tight-knit community defined by its many immigrant communities and families.
“The whole idea of Safe Passage is to build a culture of safety so we can involve people and get them to acknowledge that they are part of creating a safe space for kids, for seniors, for the community,” Robinson said.
If you walk the Tenderloin's streets on a given weekday afternoon, you’ll see corner captains like King John directing crosswalk traffic and chatting with neighbors at high-traffic intersections. Behind the scenes, Safe Passage workers will clear sidewalks for wheelchair users and pedestrians, check on folks sleeping on the streets and redirect foot traffic if an incident occurs on a sidewalk.
“Let's say a fight breaks out at Turk and Hyde [streets] and about 400 kids are about to walk through—you don't want them to walk through that,” Robinson said. “We'll just totally shift our operations, reroute the kids."
“At its core, that’s what it's about, reducing the amount of trauma that kids are exposed to on their walk to and from school,” Robinson added.
For Jalal Alabsi, his family’s involvement in the Safe Passage program is personal. Many of the Safe Passage workers are volunteers and long-term Tenderloin residents with kids, who want to see their neighbors safe on the streets and their community connected.
“It’s a lot to do: Take care of kids, elderly people, the city, sometimes translate for people who cannot speak English,” said Alabsi, a trilingual Safe Passage park captain at the Turk and Hyde Mini Park. “We take care of the kids. I know most of them by name, and we’re always learning how we can connect with the kids and parents.”
The Safe Passage program concluded its school shifts on Friday, but will continue providing the same services throughout the summer. Interested San Franciscans can inquire about volunteering by contacting the Tenderloin Community Benefit District.
“We’re like one family. We know each other. We help each other,” Alabsi said. “The kids, we take care of them—we try.”
Liz Lindqwister can be reached at email@example.com