Board of Supervisors President London Breed this week claimed to have secured a $500,000 grant to open up San Francisco’s first safe-injection site during a mayoral forum in the Tenderloin.
The announcement was made to a receptive audience in a neighborhood where residents largely support the idea as a way to help those they routinely see shooting up drugs on streets. When Republican candidate Richie Greenberg spoke against opening safe-injection sites at the forum, he was booed.
Amid this atmosphere, Breed, who is among eight candidates vying for mayor in the June 5 election, said: “We can’t be afraid to try new bold things and I actually just got a grant for $500,000 to open up our first site.”
Laura Thomas, interim state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, who has pushed for the facilities around the nation and served on The City’s safe-injection task force, said on Friday, “It’s news to me. It sounds like good news.”
However, the group with oversight of the funding said no commitment had been made.
The “grant” Breed was referring to is funding from the San Francisco Foundation’s Community Health Innovation Fund, which is a partnership between the San Francisco Foundation, the Department of Public Health and the California Pacific Medical Center, as a result of a development agreement negotiated between The City and CPMC.
The foundation told the San Francisco Examiner on Thursday, a day after the mayoral forum, that discussions are ongoing and that no decision has been finalized.
“The committee is in discussions regarding support services related to the safe-injection sites, but no decisions have been made and no dollar amounts have been decided,” said San Francisco Foundation spokesperson Ling Woo Liu.
While no safe-injection sites are operating openly in the United States, many cities like San Francisco are considering them as a new strategy to address the opioid epidemic. Studies of these sites in other countries show they reduce fatal overdoses and the spread of diseases like Hepatitis C or HIV. They could also reduce syringe litter.
The facilities allow people to use drugs like heroin under the supervision of health professionals and provide counselors and services to try and steer them onto a path to recovery.
For The City, private funding could ease worries around the legal risk and liability. The federal government could crack down on the sites for violating the Controlled Substances Act, which prohibits drug possession and allowing the use of controlled substances on the premises, otherwise referred to as the “crack house statute.”
According to Breed’s legislative aide, the committee decided on March 12 to allocate $500,000 in funding, which nonprofits could then apply for to fund their substance abuse services and treatment. But Liu said there was only a discussion “to explore funding for substance abuse services.”
Breed also told the Examiner on Friday that Fred Blackwell, executive director of the San Francisco Foundation, told her the funding was approved.
“Fred [Blackwell] was certainly aware that discussions were taking place,” Liu said in a text message Friday. “It sounds like there’s some confusion between the various parties regarding the formality/finality of those discussions and recommendations made during the meeting.”
Rachael Kagan, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Health, said the committee did commit to allocating $500,000 in grant funding for those suffering from substance use.
However, Kagan said, “The money is not meant for safe-injection services. It is for substance-use services such as treatment and counseling.”
In explaining her role around the funding, Breed said she had conversations with Dr. Warren Browner, CPMC’s CEO, and DPH Director Barbara Garcia, making her desire for those funds well-known.
Breed said Friday that it is her understanding the funding would go to pay for all the services of safe-injection sites “that are technically not illegal,” like treatment and counseling. She acknowledged funding for actual safe-injection services needs a different funding source not yet obtained.
“Maybe I should have been more precise in my answer” during the forum, she said.
Breed noted that Browner had raised concerns and didn’t want the funding to go toward safe-injection services when she approached him about the idea.
“We recognize the critical need for substance abuse treatment programs, and we are proud the Innovation Fund administered by The San Francisco Foundation is supporting community-based organizations that help those struggling on our streets,” CPMC spokesperson Dean Fryer said in an email Friday. “The San Francisco Foundation can answer questions about the grants they will issue, but CPMC has made it clear we do not support funding programs or services that violate Federal or State law.”
As for the funding for safe-injection services, Breed said, “I’m hoping either city money or hopefully private donation,” Breed said. She added, “When I’m mayor, it’s going to come from The City.”
Meanwhile, the Department of Public Health says it is hoping to open safe-injection sites this summer or fall, but is still working out the details, including funding.
“We expect to open safe-injection services in the summer or fall of 2018. We are still working on legal and siting issues,” Kagan said.
She said one safe injection site would cost between $250,000 and $300,000 to operate and whether or not any public money would go toward them was “still being determined.”
Mayor Mark Farrell told the Examiner last week he wants to open safe-injection sites “as soon as we can” and said nonprofits and City Hall are working on it and exploring funding.
“We are not making any commitments at this point in time, but this is an idea that I want to see come to fruition,” Farrell said.
On May 3, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce will be taking a delegation of about 20 to 30 people to Vancouver to see the safe-injection site there, which could help build further support for the effort locally.