Aiding the Tenderloin in San Francisco
TL Made provides jobs and craftsmanship for the residents of San Francisco.
Written: Andrew C. Goodwin
Photos: TL Made
“When you have such great pain you reach to numb it. A broken leg will eventually heal and you can stop taking the pain meds. But a broken life? It rarely heals on its own. The need to medicate, placate, numb and intoxicate never goes away. And that desire to remain numb and temporarily pain-free supersedes the desire to work, or be a present parent, or be legal, or even go on with life.”—Emily Nelson, beyondtheredchair.com
When friends are down on their luck, you lend a hand or loan some cash to help soften the sting from their struggle. But when a metropolitan neighborhood of 37,000 people within a 35-square-block area is suffering day in and day out, the approach needs to be more systematic and sustainable. An engine must be created to ensure that the help that is given can be multiplied and spread throughout the community to counteract the cyclical destitution that results from ongoing struggles with violence, drug use, theft, and even prostitution. San Francisco’s Tenderloin district has confronted these and similar issues for decades and is considered the poorest, seediest part of the city. But now one organization is developing an economic engine to help this neighborhood. Social enterprise TL Made, which launched in 2013, is working with Tenderloin artists and designers to produce high-quality handcrafted products. TL Made exists to create a sustainable business for local residents in order to infuse the Tenderloin with jobs and tell the neighborhood’s story to the world. .
Tenderloin statistics read like something out of a sensational crime novel: the neighborhood is home to seven of San Francisco’s most violent areas; the annual crime rate is two incidents per resident and three major crimes per hour; and the neighborhood suffers more violent crimes every year than any other part of the city. Because of these facts as well as the general perception of the neighborhood, the cost of living remains low. There are 585 apartment buildings in the Tenderloin, largely “single room occupancy” units in buildings marked as hotels. These rooms, which are sometimes no bigger than 100 square feet, give many a place to sleep, but there are still more than 6,000 homeless that reside or pass through the Tenderloin on a daily basis.
Whatever the cause of homelessness, it seems clear that the large number within the Tenderloin is also due to the number of charity organizations within the neighborhood. Lines go around the block for local soup kitchens and social service offices, and organizations like The Salvation Army, Raphael House (the first homeless shelter in the Tenderloin), and San Francisco City Impact have been around for decades to help people. But at some point you have to stop treating the patient and start treating the disease. This is where San Francisco City Impact found hope in the simple solution TL Made wants to implement: Give Tenderloin residents a job that matches their passion, love them and help them stay employed, and you will ultimately generate the hope and energy to end the struggles.
TL Made started when Southern California native Amanda Phelps was introduced to Allen and Ayaka Lu by San Francisco City Impact’s executive director, Christian Huang. Phelps came to Huang in hopes of finding a way to showcase the creative talents of Tenderloin residents, who had no ability to leverage websites such as Etsy in order to build a vocation and generate income. Phelps had worked as a designer in the apparel industry and found herself in love with art and social justice. The Lus were also actively trying to use their skills in e-commerce, communications, and entrepreneurship to help marginalized in underprivileged communities. Allen Lu’s experience developing eCommerce brands for some large apparel companies was an added bonus to the couple’s passion for the people of the Tenderloin. Therefore, when Phelps met the Lu’s they saw the commonality of their goal and decided to create TL Made. Since its inception, TL Made has created an inventory of homemade candles and soaps, screen-printed shirts and linens, jewelry, and leatherwork, all of which is sold online. In addition to Phelps and the Lus, TL Made’s staff of three and TL’s handful of artists, including a 70-year-old leatherworker, have created a sense of hope within the neighborhood that seems contagious. The beauty of TL Made’s story is that all of the profits go back to the Tenderloin and the residents that work to make these unbelievable products.
TL Made has seen an explosion of interest from customers wanting to support the group’s efforts, and frequently TL Made struggles to fill orders quickly enough. But this isn’t the only demand it can’t keep up with. In a conversation with Pushpa Samuel, TL Made’s social enterprise manager, Samuel mentioned the overwhelming number of requests from Tenderloin artists and artisans looking for work. It’s a conundrum: If demand increases and the workforce increases, then supply should increase. But two things stand in the way: an appropriately sized workshop and storefront, and a consistent volume of web sales. Currently, TL Made’s workshop sits above the San Francisco City Impact thrift store, and an extremely large screen-printing press occupies about 75% of the floor space. The press has been an amazing addition and helped increase the production of t-shirts, but there is a definite lack of space for other artisans to work and display their handicrafts. TL Made also has found that the ebb and flow of web orders has not allowed them to keep people employed full-time. The group is now engaging in a concentrated push to market the website and advertise its potential to fill larger orders for everything TL Made sells.
But until the organization finds a larger home, it will continue to pound the San Francisco pavement with pop-up booths at farmers markets and street fairs. “I think it is great to let people know what is going on, and that is the reason why we are driving all over the city doing pop-ups,” Samuel told PUBLIC. “Ideally, stores don’t need to do pop-ups, but we know this is the best way to get the word out. And it is not just to show people the handmade, high-quality products produced by artists in the Tenderloin, but also to have people say, ‘Oh, are there ways we can volunteer to help these people out?’” Offers to mentor people, create job profiles, and promote TL Made products are a regular occurrence at the organization’s pop-ups. Ultimately, TL Made’s mission is to transform lives within the Tenderloin. Giving their artists an opportunity for job growth and prosperity is part of their enterprise.
TL Made’s future seems bright, and the larger San Francisco community continues to offer praise and support for its mission. The next time you are in San Francisco, reach out to TL Made and help foster positive change by buying handcrafted, locally made products that not only inspire, but heal and sustain.
To Read More Subscribe to PUBLIC Journal or purchase Issue Online with the PUBLIC App.