Peacemobile: Social Services to Go : Bus Brings Potpourri of Help to San Francisco's Needy

Times Staff Writer

Darkness has washed over the Tenderloin like a bad odor.

Cheerful commuters crowd streets elsewhere in San Francisco on this early winter evening, but few venture out here among the weary old apartment buildings and hotels.

Homeless, disheveled men who reek of bad wine and bad memories share the litter-strewn streets of the Tenderloin with pimps, pushers, prostitutes--and a nagging sense of imminent danger.

Unusual Sight

On this night, they also share the streets with a most improbable sight--a hulking, red double-decker bus with one word, Peace, painted in a parade of different languages around its middle.

It is the Martin Luther King Jr. Peacemobile, an unusual, perhaps unique, project of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization.

The artfully refitted bus is a portable potpourri of San Francisco Bay Area social-service groups. It roams Northern California to bring counseling, job training and temporary day-care services to disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Bringing such services directly to people in need is important, said Margarita Benitez, who drives the bus and handles most of the day-to-day chores. Often, she said, poor people do not seek help because they cannot afford child care while away from home or bus fare to the agencies.

In the Tenderloin, for example, the private Legal Action for Women agency borrowed the bus to house one of its twice-a-month legal counseling sessions for battered women, divorced women, recent immigrants and prostitutes.

"Basically, it is available like a book in the library," Benitez said. "You can check it out, set up whatever you need inside and take it right to the people you want to help."

The theme tying together the groups using the bus is the belief that the nation's current military buildup comes at the expense of the poor, women, children, minorities--and the country's principles of equality and fair play.

"Meeting all human needs--housing, food, jobs, peace--is the biggest goal," said Jean Ishibashi, an organizer in the Martin Luther King Jr. Peacemobile Task Force. Another aim is to fight prejudice by encouraging different groups to cooperate.

"The underlying goal for all the organizations . . . is to work with people in the community and provide them with tools to fight injustice and to better their own lives," Ishibashi said.

"One of these avenues is to redirect military spending to social needs. What we are really upset with is the spending on the arms race when there are so many people in need."

The project was dedicated to King because of his attempts to join the peace and poverty movements under his civil rights umbrella.

King's Inspiring Words

Indeed, King provided the project with its motto when he said in 1967: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

The bus, a 1967 model, was bought from a tour-bus operator in Fresno and refitted by Asian Neighborhood Design, a Chinatown organization that gives hands-on training to local youths.

On its lower level is an area for group meetings or for people waiting to see a counselor. Also on this level is an office with a typewriter and photocopier for bus business and to train unskilled people for clerical jobs.

Upstairs is a computer center for further training and to entertain children with "peace games." There also is a budding library, a counseling cubicle and a cheery, colorful mini-day-care center.

Eventually, Benitez said, organizers hope to add facilities downstairs that will let them offer rudimentary medical screenings. They also want to improve the office, expand the library and install photovoltaic panels that use solar energy to run the radiotelephone, the public-address system and other gadgets.

"We have a wish list five miles long," Benitez said with a smile.

Meanwhile, the group is trying to keep the cantankerous contraption on the road. The San Francisco office of Gray Line Tours, which operates some of the same kind of buses, is helping with routine service and finding spare parts.

"Because it's an old vehicle, it takes a lot of caring," Benitez said. "When one thing gets fixed, something else goes. Most of our money goes into just keeping the bus going."

Groups Defray Expenses

Organizations using the bus are asked but not required to donate something--money, labor or supplies--to keep it running.

Since the bus started operating in 1984, it has been employed for activities ranging from registering voters to celebrating the city's rich ethnic cultural mix.

Rachel West, an organizer for Legal Action for Women, said her agency uses the bus because it makes her services more accessible without the fixed cost of another office.

"It brings us right to where the women work; it's convenient," she said.

Accessibility is especially important for her agency, she said, because her target clients--women in trouble--often are reluctant to go far from their homes because they are intimidated by abusive husbands, crusading police officers or other authority figures.

"We're offering a service that's sensitive to women's vulnerability to the law," West said. Although the legal service is backed by the U.S. Prostitutes Collective, she said her clients are "not just prostitutes but elderly women, immigrants and others."

"Women are desperate to get legal help, because there is just nothing out there," she said. "Legal Aid is being cut back drastically."

Moments of Inspiration

The intimacy afforded by the often-cramped bus has prompted some inspiring moments, said West, who normally works out of a small office she shares with other community groups in the working-class Mission District.

"I have heard some really incredible conversations there (in the bus)," she said. "There was an older black woman educating a young white woman about racism in the South. She was actually a member of Martin Luther King's Peace Campaign."

In the end, it all comes back to King and his beliefs.

"We teach what Martin Luther King stood for--that peace and justice are one cause," Benitez said. "And maybe, by bringing together people of all races, all classes, all backgrounds and sexual tendencies, maybe this will help each of us take a big step toward unlearning our prejudices."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World