Meet the “Mayor of the Tenderloin”
Del Seymour, left (Getty Images)
We’ve relaunched a GOOD online series, “People Are Awesome,” where we feature good people doing great things—and seek their advice, inspiration, and ideas. This week’s Awesome Person: Del Seymour.
Del Seymour, formerly a crack addict in San Francisco’s hardscrabble Tenderloin district, has been “out of the life” for eight years. But if that seems like long enough to keep him from danger, he’ll tell you otherwise.
“I am 99 percent safe every day,” he says, “But I’m not going to gamble with that other one percent. No way.”
Seymour spends all his waking hours in the Tenderloin, rubbing shoulders with the same characters who populated his darker decades. But now his approach is one of hope and help—peppered with the street savvy of someone who knows how bad it can get.
Seymour runs Tenderloin Walking Tours, a gritty, unorthodox guided stroll through the neighborhood, where visitors can meet struggling local residents, hear their stories, and get a firsthand sense of life there, in all its raw reality. But make no mistake—this isn’t tragedy tourism.
“I have six different versions of the tour, depending on who you are. Some people just want to see local architecture, or get a sense of the nightlife,” he says. “But for my ‘homeless walking tour’ I take social workers, caregivers, that kind of thing, who want to learn about this problem on the street level.”
Seymour is also a Vietnam vet, prominently featured in the PBS documentary series “Veterans Coming Home”. The show explored his more recent venture, Code Tenderloin, a program that teaches the homeless how to code, then matches them with Bay Area tech employers. Code Tenderloin partners with Twitter, Microsoft and other large companies; so far it has found jobs for 72 program graduates.
Seymour took time away from his many, many ventures—he’s also on the board for the nonprofit Swords to Plowshares and he chairs San Francisco’s Local Homeless Coordinating Board—to give us a peek into what makes him tick.
Who is your hero?
That would be my daughter, Carmaila. She just graduated from law school at Pepperdine, second in her class. When she was studying, she was also a single mom, raising a very autistic son on her own. He’s a wonderful young man, but severely afflicted— he is a handful. I truly don't know how she did it.
What is the best advice you have received?
“Move out of the Tenderloin.” I mean, I spend 12 to 14 hours a day in this neighborhood. But when the sun goes down, I’m gone. I drive 68 miles to my house in Fairfax, go inside, turn the lock, that’s it. Honestly there have been six times since I moved there when I’ve gotten out of bed, gotten dressed and ready to go into the city to get high. The distance keeps me from doing it—it would just be too crazy. I could lose my entire life in just one night. I don’t play with that, no way bro.
How about the worst advice?
“Try this, you'll like it.” I tried it (crack), and I liked it. There's no second answer— that is number one, two and three to the question you just asked.
What is the last thing that made you laugh out loud?
My daughter showed me a picture of a man sitting on a chair somewhere, looking all doped up. I said it resembled someone in our family: “Which one of my drugged out cousins is that?” She said, “Daddy that was you!” I didn’t even recognize myself, that’s how bad it was. (laughs) Wow, that story is kind of dark. Not sure if it counts.
If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would it be?
Montevideo, Uruguay. It’s truly the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. Before I came to the Tenderloin, I used to be an engineer, installing newspaper presses. This was back in the ‘80s, I spent six months there. It’s got the best beaches, the most humble people, you can take the ferry to Buenos Aires, they have all the old cars like in Cuba, bullfights. And trust! No one locks their doors. Go to a nightclub, everyone leaves their purses on a table to pick up at the end of the night. Just an amazing place.