Why the Tenderloin remains a drug trade containment zone

Will Mayor Breed finally clean up the neighborhood?

Isn’t it funny how sometimes the simple questions are the hardest to answer?

For instance, here’s one you’ve probably heard if you’ve lived in San Francisco, even for a minute. Why is there an open drug market in the middle of The City? In the Tenderloin, there are people openly buying and selling drugs. And by the way, shooting up and dying of overdoses.

Why is that?

Which raises the other obvious question: Why the Tenderloin? This doesn’t happen in the Marina. Or Pac Heights. Or Mission Bay. Why is it only the Tenderloin, just blocks from City Hall, that gets to be the deadly drug bazaar?

Now we cue up the familiar talking points and counterpoints. It’s all the fault of District Attorney Chesa Boudin who isn’t avidly prosecuting drug crimes. Or, the problem is that the police don’t take the drug sales seriously, and don’t make arrests. Or it is inaction at City Hall.

Feel free to spend hours debating all of that.

But here’s the deal: It shouldn’t matter.

If something were working, we wouldn’t care whose plan it was. This isn’t politics or a theoretical construct for a new American justice system.

This is a guy who is trying to open a Korean restaurant on the 200 block of Turk, who can’t get in his door to do his renovation because a dealer’s tent is in the way. And forget an arrest, no one is even helping him clear the tent.

I heard that story from Randy Shaw. He’s been a Tenderloin fixture since 1980, when he graduated from Hastings Law (also in the Tenderloin) and co-founded the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. THC now manages and leases 23 buildings in the TL, some 1,800 units.

Last week he wrote a stinging rebuke of The City’s failures to even attempt to address the drug dealing and fentanyl crisis in his Beyond the Chron newsletter.

When I reached him this week he was still hot.

“You know, people say it has always been this way,” Shaw said. “No, it hasn’t. I mean we didn’t have these kinds of scenes before COVID. Do you know how many shootings we’ve had in the Tenderloin? It is off the charts.”

(For the record, an SFPD release says the Tenderloin District “has endured a more than 71 percent increase in gun violence … over this time last year.”)

There’s really only one explanation for it. The Tenderloin has become a containment zone. As long as none of this Wild West behavior leaks out of the neighborhood, we’re good. The dealers and the users can pitch their tents and take control of those city blocks.

It isn’t as if people aren’t trying to push back and build up the area. There has been an expensive renovation of the old, glorious Hibernia Bank building to become an event space. And the Hotel Proper, at Seventh and Market, underwent a luxury redo and opened in 2017.

“But,” Shaw says, in community meetings with the police, “they are telling horror stories about how they can’t get any bookings because people are outside dealing drugs all day. And we are still dealing with this years later? After Hibernia and Proper put so much money in?”

Did we mention that the number one economic driver in San Francisco is tourism?

One more factor. Yes, there have been problems in the TL for years. And yes, drug use there is hardly a new development.

But this is different. Fentanyl has changed everything.

Police Chief Bill Scott put it well when he said, “The staggering loss of life we’ve seen due to drug overdoses is a public calamity San Franciscans haven’t seen since the AIDS crisis.”

In 2020, a report from the Office of Chief Medical Examiner showed 712 drug overdose deaths. By September of this year, the same report showed there were already 511. As police department spokesperson Matt Dorsey said, if we added in the number of overdose victims that were saved by Narcan nasal spray, the numbers would skyrocket.

In both studies, over 40% of the deaths happened in the Tenderloin or adjoining SoMa.

We know the problem. We know where it is. How can it not be solved?

It is a little of everyone’s fault, of course. And it doesn’t take long to see that people are talking past each other.

Boudin hasn’t helped his image as soft-on-crime with press releases that say, “Pretrial detention shall be the last option.” That leads to the charge that when a dealer is arrested, instead of awaiting trial in jail, he’s back on the street.

Boudin’s theory seems to be that it doesn’t make much difference because, as he told 60 Minutes+ back in March, “As soon as dealers are arrested, they are replaced immediately.”

SFPD disagrees, pointing to stats they compiled that showed 68 dealers have been arrested more than once in the same neighborhood this year. Seventeen have been arrested more than twice. And four have been arrested four times.

But Boudin says dinging low level dealers is pointless.

“I need the police officers to bring me kilos, not crumbs,” he famously said in that 60 Minutes+ episode.

To which Chief Scott said, “I have a different opinion on that. I think it does make a difference. We get a kilo, that’s great. We get a bag of fentanyl, that’s just as fantastic.”

The problem, the police say, is they make the arrests — they announced a big 19.8 kilogram fentanyl haul last month — but there’s no consequences. No confinement, no threat of prison for repeat offenders. The D.A. needs to be more aggressive.

“Yeah, but they always say that,” says Shaw. “They said it about George Gascón (Boudin’s predecessor). They used to say it about Arlo Smith (district attorney from 1980 to 1996.)

Shaw wants to see more of the long-promised foot patrols. He says Mayor London Breed’s much-touted Tenderloin revival plan has been long on promises but short on actual enforcement.

The Mayor’s office says they are following through and now can give people on the street an option — we have a place for you in a shelter or you can leave this spot. Those are the choices.

That’s important to Shaw because he wants to see stepped-up efforts to clear the sidewalks of tents. He mentioned something I hadn’t thought of about tents.

When they began to appear, around the time when The City hosted the Super Bowl in 2016, dealers realized they were an excellent cover for out-of-sight sales. So moving tents actually has a role in the drug war.

The simple truth is, as Shaw says, perception matters. You can’t have someone drive through the Tenderloin, see the chaos and think, “Here’s a city that has things under control.”

There’s no mystery to it. Everyone understands the problem.

Not long ago Mayor Breed was asked:“At this time next year, what would you like to say you accomplished?”

“Cleaned up the Tenderloin,” she said.

Great. Let’s get started.

Contact C.W. Nevius at cwnevius@gmail.com. Twitter: @cwnevius

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