“It’s not charity, it’s justice”

It was a beautiful day for Sunday in the park so I made it almost to the top of Bernal Hill. There were children up there, families and dogs in the glorious sunshine. The city and the bay lay below, like one of those brightly colored television shots: beautiful San Francisco.

The next day I had an errand to run, so I took a shortcut from 29th and Mission streets along Tiffany Avenue.

Most people have never heard of Tiffany Avenue; it’s at the foot of Bernal Hill, a pleasant one-block street lined with stucco houses dating back to 1939. It’s nice, but nothing special. According to real estate website Zillow, homes on Tiffany range from $1.1 million for a condo to $2.3 million for upscale Tiffany.

At the north end that Monday, where Tiffany runs into Valencia Street, two people, a man and a woman, had set up camp on the sidewalk in the shade of the trees. Looked like they were here to stay. They had a big tent or awning, some kind of rest area, and enough stuff to fill a van: a bike, plastic bags, stuff, clutter.

Three people with yellow vests and clipboards, obviously some sort of outreach team from the city, were talking to the camp lady. When I came back from my run, the townspeople were gone, but the camp was still there. The man and the woman were talking to each other. I did not listen. I did what most San Franciscans would do. I passed. It’s none of my business.

I was on Tiffany a few days later and the couple and their camp were gone. But the next day, a new man had built a million-dollar cardboard shack across the street. A tale of two cities.

That same week, there was an article in The Chronicle about a celebration at the new Sister Lillian Murphy Community, a 152-unit low-cost housing development in Mission Bay. The article, written by my colleague JK Dineen, described the beautiful new building with a lush second-story courtyard in a neighborhood of expensive apartments and condos.

But the community is different: the tenants are poor. Some of them were homeless, others lived in old hotel residences or with relatives. The building is owned by Mercy Housing, a non-profit organization run by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy. It is named after sister Lillian Murphy, who for 27 years served as CEO of Mercy Housing. Under his watch, Mercy Housing grew from a small nonprofit that owned a few units in Idaho and other locations to a 30,000-unit housing operation with approximately 50,000 residents. She has raised millions of dollars to support Mercy Housing.

Political leaders in every city talk a lot about affordable housing. But Lillian Murphy did it. If she had been the CEO of a large, for-profit corporation, she would have earned a large salary and been on the cover of Fortune magazine. But Sister Lillian was a nun who took a vow of poverty.

Dineen quoted former Mercy Housing CEO Jane Graf: “Lillian was a force of nature…a woman of great stature and strong conviction. Graf described Mercy Housing’s mission: “We didn’t do this to build buildings or build a real estate portfolio. It was to change the life trajectory of people who lived in cyclical poverty.

I asked Sister Pauline Borghello, who grew up with Lillian Murphy and was her friend for years, what motivates her. “She’s always been there for that other person. Amazing, isn’t it?” said Sister Pauline. She described Lillian’s work as her ministry. to the needs of the people of God.”

It’s a San Francisco story, really. It’s the town that also has the drugs and desperation of the Tenderloin and the street people who destroyed and looted a small bike shop on Market Street. Dineen, the reporter, wrote about both Sister Lillian and the bike shop in the same week. Two sides of the same city.

Lillian Murphy was born and raised in the Mission District. San Francisco was a small city then and still is. Lillian went to St. Peter’s Catholic School at 24th and Alabama streets. I went there too, but at another time. I didn’t know Lillian Murphy, but my younger sister, Alyce, was one of her friends.

Lillian was drawn to the life of the Sisters of Mercy, who ran the school. She loved what they were doing in the community. She wanted to help others, but not alone – working together was better. She wanted to be a teacher, but was assigned to the accounting department at St. Mary’s Hospital in San Francisco. Other hospital administrative jobs followed, and she earned a master’s degree in public health at UC Berkeley.

She knew nothing about the housing industry when she was asked to replace Sister Mary Terese Tracy, who was retiring as CEO of Mercy Housing.

It was 1987. Mercy Housing was staffed by six nuns and 20 employees. It was so small that for years she kept checkbooks from every Mercy Housing property in her purse.

When she retired, Mercy Housing was one of the nation’s largest nonprofit housing organizations. There were two reasons for her success: She was an excellent administrator and a master of human resources: “She saw the potential in people,” Sister Pauline said. “She thought you had to surround yourself with good people. She had good judgment.

Sister Lillian was good at what she did. “We want to be known for our compassionate skill,” she once said.

Sister Lillian Murphy retired as CEO in 2014 at the age of 73. She died after a brief illness in the summer of 2019. “People think of nonprofit housing as charity,” she once said. “It’s not charity, it’s justice.” The Sister Lillian Murphy complex is located at 691 China Basin Street, not far from the baseball stadium. It’s part of his legacy.

Carl Nolte’s columns appear in the Sunday edition of The Chronicle. Email: [email protected]

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