Haight-Ashbury residents called for answers, more police enforcement and targeted services in the neighborhood in the wake of one homicide and three deaths suspected to be related to drug overdoses this month at a community meeting held Saturday.
Three men were found dead near the Urban School of San Francisco on Thursday. The deaths were likely linked to drug overdoses and came less than a week after a Feb. 16 double shooting in the Panhandle claimed the life of one man and left another critically injured.
San Francisco Police Department Chief William Scott said that all four of the deaths were a “symptom of a larger problem” that includes drug use and homelessness in the Haight neighborhood at Saturday’s meeting, held inside of the Park Police Station in Golden Gate Park.
In attendance were city department heads, public safety officials and community outreach workers, who presented a united front over addressing lingering public safety and crime issues in the area and citywide.
The deaths inspired some 40 residents and community stakeholders to attend the weekend meeting, many of whom expressed frustration with a perceived uptick in crime in the area and shared concerns about crime and safety in the area.
With a homicide investigation pending, Scott was unable to provide updates on the shooting, but confirmed that a suspect, who was taken into custody hours after the incident and has been identified as 31-year-old transient Joel Armstrong, is believed to have been “involved” in a 2017 shooting near the Haight Street McDonalds.
As of Saturday, Armstrong remained in custody for further questioning, according to Scott.
Park Police Station Captain Una Bailey said that despite the recent shootings, gun violence had not increased in the area overall. “This is a safe district,” she said, adding that statistics show a decrease in crime.
But many residents of the Haight who attended the meeting disagreed.
“People are terrified to leave their homes,” said a resident of the area who called for more foot beat patrol officers. “When I walk on Haight Street and there is a group of 14 kids — many are transient with pitbulls and I can’t get through the street, I feel terrified.”
The comment was denounced by some attendees, who urged city leaders to lead with compassion and resources rather than enforcement when addressing the area’s homeless residents.
“There is a huge problem with equating kids on the sidewalk with dogs and people getting shot in the Panhandle,” said Katherine Roberts, a resident of the area. “ We need to make that fine distinction.”
District 5 Supervisor London Breed, who called for the meeting and is a candidate for mayor, said that beat patrols in the Haight have increased from two to 16 since she became the neighborhood’s supervisor in 2013.
The SFPD has doubled the number of beat officers citywide, from “about 70 to over 140” said Scott, who added that The City must work collectively to address the “root causes” of crime and homelessness, including poverty and drug addiction.
“We don’t need to fill up our prisons with addicted people,” he said. “If we don’t address the root causes, we will be chasing our tails.”
Alexandra Burn, a member of the Youth Policy Advisory Council and Taking it to the Streets, an Upper Haight organization that works to mentor and employ homeless youth, said the group has been advocating for a 24-hour drop-in center at the current site of a McDonalds slated to be razed and replaced with affordable housing.
“If we had a [24-hour] center, somebody could stay a night, somebody could get out of the rain, they could get away from violence,” said Burn, who pointed out that the center would be clear solution to the neighborhood’s ongoing issues around homelessness.“I don’t know why it’s not happening — you are concerned about safety but nobody is taking into consideration [those who are] actually homeless.”
Jeff Kositsky, director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said The City will gain 450 temporary shelter beds in the next “three to four months” in the form of Navigation Centers, though none are specifically slated for the neighborhood.
Breed, whose sister died of a drug overdose, has spearheaded efforts to bring safe-injections sites to San Francisco, and the San Francisco Health Commission voted in support of opening such sites on Feb. 7.
On Saturday, Breed, who declined to take questions from reporters, said two privately safe injection sites would open up in San Francisco in the coming months, but did not state in which districts they would be located.
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