Editorial: Hooray for car-free JFK Drive. Now let’s fix drug death crisis in the Tenderloin

With Golden Gate Park saved, Mayor Breed’s attention needed on life and death drug crisis

After over 11 hours of public comment, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted 7-4 to make a 1.5 mile stretch of road in Golden Gate Park car-free in perpetuity. This is great news for walkers, bicyclists and community activists who had advocated fiercely to keep John F. Kennedy Drive as a safe haven for pedestrian recreation after it was closed to traffic during the COVID pandemic.

The debate over closing JFK Drive to traffic brought out fierce and passionate advocacy on both sides of the issue. In the end, a majority of supervisors supported a version of Mayor London Breed’s proposal to keep cars off the road despite concerns

“Today is a historic day,” said Breed on Twitter, declaring victory. “The Board just voted to make JFK Drive permanently car-free. An essential space for our residents and families that is now a long-term benefit to this city. We still have work to do, but passing this legislation is where we begin to make real change.”

Now that the great JFK Drive debate is settled, Breed should lay out her plan for fixing the far more pressing issue of drug deaths in the Tenderloin and SoMa. In December, Breed made national headlines for her decision to get serious about cracking down on out-of-control drug sales and deaths in these beleaguered areas. She declared a 90-day state of emergency and drew praise for her tough-talking resolve.

“It’s time the reign of criminals who are destroying our city come to an end,” Breed said during a press conference on Dec. 15. “And it comes to an end when we take the steps to be more aggressive with law enforcement: more aggressive with the changes in our policies and less tolerant of all the bullsh*t that has destroyed our city.”

When the 90 days came to a close, however, Breed declared an end to the emergency and skipped off on a 10-day junket to Europe without bothering to offer an explanation. Meanwhile, the open-air drug dealing continues unabated. Judging by the look of certain downtown streets, it’s almost as if nothing happened, making Breed’s announcement seem more like publicity than progress. The San Francisco Police Department continues to pull kilos of fentanyl off of the streets, but crowds of addicted people and drug dealers continue to flock there unperturbed.

The one concrete positive step afforded by Breed’s emergency declaration, the opening of the Tenderloin Linkage Center on Market Street, has yet to live up to its promise. On the bright side, city officials say the center has recorded over 29,000 visitors, referred over 1,200 clients to services and succeeded in reversing over 35 overdoses. In addition, earlier this month the Department of Public Health announced the successful hiring of 204 health workers. Yet as of April 10, only 99 people had been placed into housing, though officials say they also made an additional 366 temporary shelter placements, according a recent story by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mallory Moench.

It would be unfair to judge the linkage center’s progress by its first few months. This linkage center represents an entirely new approach to the drug crisis, the new health workers have barely come online and a persistent lack of resources means the center can’t actually help everyone currently seeking services. Yet it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the “bullsh*t” Breed decried in December — flagrant drug use and open dealing that takes over entire city blocks — continues unabated.

Breed received criticism from progressives for her promise to get more aggressive about solving the drug death problem in the Tenderloin, but her “tough love” approach turned out to be little more than talk. With over 45 overdose deaths in March, and over 144 deaths so far this year according to data compiled by the Chronicle, it’s clear the problem isn’t going away any time soon.

So, what’s the plan going forward? Now that San Franciscans no longer have to worry about cars on JFK Drive, when will they be able to walk through United Nations Plaza without finding themselves in the middle of a haphazard drug bazaar? Given the fact that it took The City nearly 30 years and over $300 million to build a new bus lane on Van Ness, the prospects of Breed solving this human problem on her watch seem grim.

There’s nothing easy about this problem, but Breed has put herself on the hook for results. With JFK Drive now safe from vehicles and pollution, and with an election year around the corner, it’s time to deliver on the real change she promised on this deadly problem.

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