Breed’s emergency plan for the Tenderloin draws backlash

‘You have to address the root causes … this is completely different’

Some San Francisco leaders and health experts who called for an emergency plan to address the Tenderloin’s overdose crisis say Mayor London Breed’s police crackdown announced last week wasn’t what they had in mind.

“We were a little surprised,” said Dr. Vitka Eisen, CEO, HealthRIGHT 360, a health nonprofit that provides medical and behavioral health care, substance use treatment and other homeless services. “The mayor had just announced we had identified a potential site for consumption and that’s great. Then to have this announcement come after that, I was confused.”

Breed announced a sweeping 90-day plan for the Tenderloin that ranges from infrastructure improvements, such as fixing street lights and sidewalks, to flooding streets with cops to stop open-air drug dealing and use. The City on Friday announced a state of emergency for the neighborhood, which Breed said would allow San Francisco to bypass certain zoning rules and bureaucracy to implement its plan.

On Monday, Eisen joined a group of public officials including District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Public Defender Mano Raju, as well as substance use disorder experts, to urge Breed to direct resources toward alternatives to policing that The City has been developing in recent years.

Other city officials, meanwhile, threw their support behind Breed, including Supervisors Ahsha Safaí and Catherine Stefani. Supervisor Matt Haney initially expressed support for the emergency declaration in order to address the spike in overdoses, but told The Examiner he did not endorse the Mayor’s overall proposal, saying he strongly opposes “criminalizing addiction.”

“We are losing over two people a day to drug overdoses, mostly to fentanyl, and mostly in the Tenderloin and SoMa,” said Supervisor Matt Haney, whose district includes the Tenderloin. “This official declaration of an emergency will give us the tools we need to respond with the speed and scale required.”

The mayor’s critics acknowledged the visible problems facing the Tenderloin, including a surge of overdoses, crime and homelessness. From January to October, 592 people died of overdoses in San Francisco. In 2020, 711 people died of an overdose in The City, almost three times the number of COVID-related deaths. The majority of those deaths were driven by fentanyl.

But they fired back at proposals made by SFPD Chief William Scott and Breed to ramp up police presence, arrest dealers and possibly users, and move people who openly use drugs to treatment centers or jail.

“The original call from the Board of Supervisors was about addressing overdoses and the emergency around that. It was never about increasing police presence or putting more money in the police budget,” said Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton. “You have to address the root causes (of drug use), and that’s what we tried to do with our declaration. This is completely different.”

They say the neighborhood, which has the highest concentration of children in San Francisco, already is heavily policed, yet drug overdoses have increased in the wake of COVID-19.

S.F. District Attorney Chesa Boudin expresses concerns about jail being an effective way to deal with people who are homeless, those who suffer from mental illness or those who struggle with substance use. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

S.F. District Attorney Chesa Boudin expresses concerns about jail being an effective way to deal with people who are homeless, those who suffer from mental illness or those who struggle with substance use. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

“We all share the concern and the pain about the situation in the Tenderloin. Personally, I am outraged every time that I walk and drive through the Tenderloin,” said Boudin.

Boudin rejected the notion that jail would be effective. About 75% of people in San Francisco jails suffer from mental illness or substance use disorder, according to the district attorney, and nearly a third of those currently in San Francisco jails are unhoused.

“We don’t know where they will go when they get released,” Boudin said. “We know about these problems, they are not new problems, and we must address them if we are serious about safety and if we are serious about justice.”

Speakers on Monday called for greater investment into programs such as the Street Crisis Response Team, which launched in November 2020 to respond to mental health and substance use crises on the streets.

In recent months, efforts of The City’s homelessness outreach network led to 122 people in the Tenderloin moving into shelters or housing. But 256 people declined those services, Breed tweeted on Monday.

Groups such as the Coalition on Homelessness agreed that increasing police won’t help those struggling with complicated situations. They warned a heavy police approach could re-create the turmoil and mass incarceration that was seen during the War on Drugs.

“There is nothing new about the mayor’s proposal — it’s simply an expansion of strategies that have been tried and failed,” the Coalition on Homelessness said in a written response. “The tried-and-failed strategy of addressing socioeconomic problems with punishment will only lead to more harm and suffering on our streets, while the mayor stalls on implementing the evidence-based solutions that community members have fought hard for.”

Along with increased enforcement, Breed has proposed creating a resource tent in United Nations Plaza that could link drug users with supportive services. But many harm-reduction advocates are still scratching their heads over its usefulness in the short term if a safe consumption site and supportive housing are still not available for people.

San Francisco is simultaneously working to establish a safe consumption site, where people can use drugs in a controlled environment and be connected to treatment. The idea has already saved lives in New York City, where the first safe use site in the United States opened in November.

“If you don’t have a full range of services for that, then what exactly are you triaging?” said Eisen. “The City has been innovative in exploring policy alternatives. We just need to implement them.”

Update: This story was updated on Dec. 20 to clarify the position of Supervisor Matt Haney.

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