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In Tenderloin Times, Some Asia Issues Won't Disappear

March 26, 1987|HARRIET STIX

SAN FRANCISCO — "What is this? Is this another wedding?"

Tenderloin Times co-editor Sara Colm stared down at a paragraph written in elegant--and to her, incomprehensible--Laotian script.

The answer--no--was provided by Laotian reporter Chanthanom Ounkeo, and the two women moved on to the next problem, a sentence that was too long.

Juggling stories in a language she doesn't understand is all in a day's work for Colm, as she pieces together the current issue of this unusual inner-city newspaper's Laotian, Vietnamese and Cambodian sections (in addition to the English-language section).

The Times is the neighborhood paper of the 23,000 elderly poor, Southeast Asian refugees, homeless and mentally ill, drug users and transients who crowd the Tenderloin's cheap and often nasty hotels and apartments. If its heart is the usual "small town" paper blend of gossip, "service," or informational stories, reviews and profiles of neighbors, its soul is the hard-hitting but meticulously researched examinations of perennial Tenderloin problems--homelessness, substandard housing, landlord/tenant problems, the neglect of the mentally ill, the problems of the new immigrants.

It is read in City Hall and in the newsrooms of the city's major media. San Francisco's dailies and TV stations often follow up on Times stories, and the Times will sometimes feed information to them in order to reach a wider audience, and bring action. "In January, there were stories on death on the streets on the front page of the Chronicle and the Examiner, crediting us. It happens all the time," Times co-editor Rob Waters said.

Equally satisfying is the enthusiasm of its readers. "People look in the door all the time to tell us they want something put in the paper," Waters said. "They call here wanting to know how to get on welfare, how to get into the homeless program." Sometimes they even call him at home, a sign of success he could do without.

The Times was first published in August, 1977, as a small, mimeographed sheet put out by the Central City Hospitality House, a nonprofit agency, which is still its publisher. In 1982, Waters, who had helped start a community paper in the Haight Ashbury, was hired as editor and began producing it monthly.

Realizing a Need

Two years ago, a $76,000 grant from the San Francisco Foundation made it possible for the paper to expand into four languages. "A third to half of the neighborhood couldn't read what we were putting out so we saw a real need," Waters explained.

Now the paper--which is distributed free each month in the neighborhood's hotels and apartment buildings, restaurants and bars, small shops and social service agencies--has two full-time editors, Waters and Colm, a half-time associate editor and a part-time staff of three Southeast Asian reporters, an advertising representative and office manager. All of which, Waters said, "adds up to a staff of 4.89 people." A photographer and art director are paid as consultants and volunteers--people from the neighborhood, journalism students--contribute stories and help out with production of the 15,000-circulation paper.

Last month's issue focused on homeless AIDS victims; on the controversial Los Angeles-based religious U.S. Mission organization that recently opened a shelter for the homeless in the Tenderloin; and on ancient Southeast Asian ways of healing. On this month's front page, there are stories on the possible closure of the inner city's only 24-hour emergency clinics, on racial tension in schools and on the bankruptcy of a jewelry manufacturer that employed about 250 Southeast Asians.

Generally, Waters said, "we are exploring the big issues that are always here and never go away. We routinely cover the homeless, and housing--the No. 1 issue here is housing and the lack thereof."

Neighborhood News

In general, the Times emphasizes service stories for its readers--tenants' rights, how to deal with welfare requirements, how to become a citizen--and "general neighborhood news which is what the paper is about," Waters said. Indeed, what readers say they turn to first are The Tender Side, a gossip column, and In Short, a section of notices and brief stories about the neighborhood.

There are restaurant and film reviews, profiles of local personalities and features on culture and the arts, both Asian and non-Asian--"things to help people disrupted from their lives without much choice," Colm explained.

The last four pages of each issue are given over to news for the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian communities. The Asian reporters write their stories in English so that they can be edited by Colm, who then hands them back for translation.

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