‘We need a place to take a shower and feel welcomed’

Tenderloin linkage center opens one month after Mayor Breed’s emergency declaration

San Francisco resident Fred Marks-Ra has seen solutions and services for people experiencing homelessness come and go. But it’s always felt like a fragmented series of steps that don’t always add up to the types of care he needs.

So on Wednesday morning, he was curious to look behind the door at 1172 Market St., the location of the newly opened Tenderloin Linkage Center, nestled behind rows of merchants and large white tents at the Civic Center farmers market.

Fred Marks-Ra was curious to check out the Tenderloin Linkage Center after seeing numerous other solutions and services for people experiencing homelessness, but then not live up to the level of care he needs. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Fred Marks-Ra was curious to check out the Tenderloin Linkage Center after seeing numerous other solutions and services for people experiencing homelessness, but then not live up to the level of care he needs. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

“I just recently went back on medication and now I need to situate myself to receive,” said Marks-Ra, adding that he’s navigating a situation where he’s being asked to leave a shelter he has been staying at. “But I’m having a lot of just human regular problems right now. If you’re in a shelter, a bag of groceries can tide you over for two weeks. If you’re not living in a place, there’s no way to conserve it.”

The linkage site is a central component of a local state of emergency declared by Mayor London Breed on Dec. 17 to crack down on outdoor drug use and direct individuals who are struggling with substance use disorder into treatment. Just four weeks after the mayor’s announcement, the center is now running seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., with plans to expand to 24 hours a day as the operation increases staff.

The site offers hot food, water and hygiene services such as laundry, bathrooms and showers, along with connections to other services such as shelter and transitional housing, therapy, child care and substance use treatment. Weekly wellness programs will also provide services like COVID-19 vaccinations and HIV and Hepatitis C testing.

Those overseeing health services onsite also envision a future where medications can be picked up at the Tenderloin Linkage Center, which currently occupies the ground floor of a seven-story building that will eventually be used in its entirety for the services hub.

“The whole premise here is not just that we want to be nice to people; there is a science to it. People’s nervous systems need to feel safe in order to make changes,” said Dr. Deborah Borne, who oversees health policy for people experiencing homelessness at the San Francisco Department of Public Health. “When you’re on the street, your sympathetic nervous system is so high. The first step is helping everyone’s nervous system feel safer.”

On its first day, 118 people came through the linkage site and were connected with hot meals and showers, plus assistance signing up for medical coverage and housing opportunities.

“It was great. All of us were pleasantly surprised about the level of people who had specific asks for service and make those connections,” said Mary Ellen Carroll, executive director of the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management. “We had someone come in who qualified for treatment and was ready to go but didn’t have a TB test; we arranged to get them a shelter bed and bridge them over until that residential space is open. That’s exactly the scenario I’m thinking in my head for this.”

Several of The City’s homelessness service providers were onsite Wednesday, including members from HealthRight360, Project Homeless Connect, Code Tenderloin, Urban Alchemy and San Francisco’s Homeless Outreach Team.

But the current omicron surge, which has kept thousands of workers out sick in recent weeks, has put a strain on just how much the center can offer at this time.

That has made the question of how to get people to trust and visit the linkage center even more puzzling. Carroll said law enforcement is not being asked to escort people there. And arrests have so far remained steady since the emergency declaration, the Chronicle reported.

“Every single outreach program who offers services in the Tenderloin knows about this center and is directing people,” said Borne. “We don’t want anyone to feel like the police are bringing them or that they are being coerced.”

In December, Breed strikingly referred to the longstanding challenge of open drug use, dealing and overdoses in the Tenderloin as “bullsh*t,” and said people using drugs on the sidewalk could be pushed toward drug treatment or face jail time.

The mayor’s ensuing emergency declaration — used to bypass certain zoning laws to get the linkage center up and running quickly — has been met with backlash from some city leaders, homeless service providers and harm reduction advocates who oppose calls from leadership to ramp up enforcement in the area.

Several critics pointed to unsuccessful attempts in the past to send more police into the neighborhood to clean it up and drew a comparison to the War on Drugs that supercharged incarceration across the United States.

Carroll insists the San Francisco Police Department will work with individuals to direct them to treatment and services rather than arrest them. But actual responses will play out case by case. “If they are dealing with someone who is doing something that requires a law enforcement interaction, that is up to their discretion,” she said.

The City’s Homeless Outreach Team and Urban Alchemy are currently tasked with escorting people from the surrounding area to the linkage site, according to Carroll. Once clients arrive at the center, they may receive additional transportation help to medical services or other sites through a Yellow Cab voucher program.

Vincent McCarthy planned to come back later in the day Wednesday for a shower and a hot meal. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Vincent McCarthy planned to come back later in the day Wednesday for a shower and a hot meal. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Outreach will be limited in these early days until staffing levels rebound. Vincent McCarthy, 33, was one of a handful of people who stumbled upon the center simply by chance and decided to pass through.

“I’m happy to see this. People who live on the sidewalks, we’re told to move constantly and it’s nice to change things up to get help and assistance with things,” said McCarthy, adding that he planned to come back later in the day again for a shower and hot meal. “Overall, they are nice and friendly, that’s really the main best thing. You feel welcomed and it’s positive; it’s not like you’re unwanted, which is how it usually is.”

McCarthy has done everything from working in a pizza restaurant to retail stores and most recently began working in shipping warehouses. But it’s been a struggle to land a job now that he is living without an address.

“Being homeless, I can’t just walk in somewhere. Where do I stash my stuff? Will it get stolen?” he said. “I just need some black slacks and a pair of Dickies. I could get a job, but I’m not stable right now.”

A book with the popular cartoon characters Rick and Morty sitting on top of his suitcase serves as a reminder of why he keeps trying. “My son loves that show,” he said, referring to his 13-year-old, whom he hopes to connect with more once he can secure housing.

“We need a place to take a shower and feel welcomed,” said McCarthy. “This seems like it’s a good thing, so we’ll see how it continues.”

sjohnson@sfexaminer.com

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