By Randy Shaw
Special to The Examiner
San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s policies have turned the Tenderloin neighborhood into a nightmare for residents and workers. A place whose low-income children and parents must write letters “begging” City Hall for basic safety.
Sadly, the mayor’s policies would reverse the Tenderloin’s shift away from its longtime role as a citywide containment zone for drug activities. No mayor announces this goal, but that’s where the Breed administration’s policies have moved.
It’s been a hard truth for me to accept. I thought the idea of returning the Tenderloin to a containment zone was gone for good. But City Hall was pushing in this direction well before the pandemic.
And it has not stopped.
The latest is the mayor’s plan to The City to spend $6.2 million in Prop C homeless dollars to open a “safe injection site” at 822 Geary.
Safe injection site
When plans for a safe injection site emerged in 2017, I was assured that any Tenderloin facility would be at an existing medical site. That’s what New York City is doing when it opens two safe injection sites as soon as today. Unlike Mayor Breed’s plan for 822 Geary, both sites “are already operating as needle exchange programs.”
In the Tenderloin’s case, Glide was often discussed, which made sense. Supporters recognized that opening new drug facilities in the Tenderloin was the wrong move.
This was part of larger conversation initiated by then-Dsitrict 6 Supervisor Jane Kim about the equitable sharing of social services throughout The City. That dialogue about spreading services across San Francisco appears to have been lost.
In 2017, the Tenderloin was not overrun with drug dealers. That distinguishes it from Vancouver, which never had this level of drug dealing before opening its safe injection site. (I visited the Vancouver site in 2016 and saw many users outside the building.)
San Francisco takes an enormous financial risk in opening a safe injection site at 822 Geary or anywhere else until state or federal law authorizes it. The potential civil and criminal liability is too great. In January 2021, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal in United States v. Safehouse (985 F.3d 225) stopped a nonprofit organization’s proposed safe injection site for opioid users on grounds it would violate federal law. It’s hard to see a court ruling differently if San Francisco tried to do the same.
822 Geary is wrong location
Many are mystified by the mayor’s decision to convert what has been a grocery store and retail outlet since 1941 into a safe injection site. The Tenderloin has few such large retail sites. Converting 822 Geary to drug activities is neighborhood revitalization in reverse.
The 800 block of Geary has 15 buildings (including 822 Geary) on the National Register of Historic Places. It lacks the open drug dealing visible throughout the Tenderloin.
Converting the retail space into a drug facility will likely change this. It extends the current Tenderloin drug containment zone further up Hyde Street to Geary. The 800 block could soon replicate the drug-heavy sidewalk activity that we see on Turk Street. According to a former Tenderloin Station Police Captain, the opening of a methadone center at 433 Turk caused nearby drug sales to explode. That was after the community was assured the facility would have no negative impacts.
822 Geary is also only two blocks from Macauley Park. Neighborhood activists spent years clearing drug dealing from around the park to encourage families and seniors to feel safe there. Yet The City has no hesitation about putting one of the few open space areas for Tenderloin families at risk.
Many residents of the Tenderloin strongly oppose the mayor’s plans. But community input from residents, workers, small businesses and property owners near 800 Geary has not been sought.
Proposed meth center
The safe injection site is part of a consistent pattern by the Breed administration of looking to expand services in the already over-saturated Tenderloin.
In November 2019, The City was secretly moving on plans to open “daybreak” shelters and a potential navigation center in the Tenderloin. Those plans were blocked by an inability to secure the necessary sites. So Mayor Breed then announced plans for a meth center on a city-owned site at 180 Jones. The meth center would be across the street from an affordable family housing complex at 201 Turk. Families were outraged by the plan. But the mayor didn’t care.
I wrote at the time (“Proposed Tenderloin Meth Center Must be Stopped”):
“The Tenderloin already has a methodone clinic on the 400 block of Turk. But The City wouldn’t care if there were a methodone or meth center on every block of the Tenderloin — it was so confident about its plans that it moved forward at 180 Jones without speaking to anyone in the community. The Health Department has done the same thing with plans for a “mobile crisis center” on the 500 block of Eddy Street. The announcement was posted on the street without The City having talked to property owners on that block (or anyone else).
What does it say about San Francisco that it treats a low-income, ethnically diverse neighborhood with such contempt?”
This pattern is being repeated at 822 Geary.
You don’t get 500 tents in a residential neighborhood by accident.
Tents never dominated the Tenderloin neighborhood until London Breed became mayor. In July 2019 I wrote that “tents were nearly everywhere.” This was well before COVID.
The tents often concealed drug dealing. At the time I wrote, “Mayor Breed unquestionably wants to make the Tenderloin a safer and healthier neighborhood.” I instead blamed the police in the hopes that Breed would force them to better protect Tenderloin residents.
The pandemic stopped the meth center. But it did not change City Hall’s plans for the Tenderloin. Pandemic protocols mandating social distancing were enforced in all neighborhoods except for the Tenderloin. This lack of enforcement greatly increased health risks to those walking in the neighborhood.
I wrote in April 2020, “City Hall is using the pandemic to further transform the Tenderloin into a ghetto. An official containment zone for illegal activities.”
Tenderloin stakeholders were forced to sue San Francisco in May 2020 for its failure to protect Tenderloin residents. It was only after the court ordered The City to remove tents, blocking social distancing that the city government did so (city officials claim the timing of the lawsuit was coincidental and that tents would have been removed without the lawsuit).
During the Board of Supervisors debate over the court injunction, some “progressive” supervisors expressed concern that if tents weren’t allowed in the Tenderloin they would come to their neighborhoods. It was a public articulation of why San Francisco turned the Tenderloin into a drug containment zone.
Drug dealing was not covered by the injunction. With a District Attorney opposed to arresting drug dealers (See “Chesa Boudin is Failing the Tenderloin,” June 2, 2020) and police allowing open drug supermarkets, Tenderloin drug activity got even worse.
It took nearly a year from the court injunction on tents for Mayor Breed to announce in May 2021 that The City would fund Urban Alchemy to address drug dealing in the Tenderloin and Mid-Market. I was glad to see the Tenderloin finally get the city resources it deserved. I hoped it signified new support at City Hall for protecting the neighborhood.
But Tenderloin drug dealing remains out of control. I have worked at 126 Hyde since 1986. We have never had anywhere near this many dealers on our side of Hyde as we have now. San Francisco either has an incompetent police force or one that is carrying out City Hall’s plans to keep the Tenderloin a drug containment zone.
Union Square vs. Tenderloin
The Breed administration rapidly responded to the recent mass thefts in Union Square. Police flooded the area to send a message of safety and concern to an historic area often identified as the heart of San Francisco.
I strongly support The City’s rapid intervention in Union Square. But on the same day police flooded Union Square, the Phoenix Hotel — whose rich historical assets make it the Tenderloin’s version of Union Square’s Louis Vuitton — had over 100 drug dealers bordering its 600 Eddy Street location.
I don’t know of any other neighborhood in the nation that harbors such a scene. And no police were in sight. Not a single officer.
Union Square and Phoenix Hotel are part of the historic fabric of San Francisco. Yet The City gave a prompt response to a crisis impacting one while it has gone nearly two years failing to provide the additional resources necessary for addressing the other.
Even Chesa Boudin felt compelled to show action regarding thefts at Louis Vuitton. But this purported social justice crusader has still not held such a media event or done anything publicly to show he is concerned about the Tenderloin. He has done nothing to publicly demonstrate that he even cares about the drug and public safety crisis affecting its low-income, multi-racial residents.
Is San Francisco a city that cares more about stolen handbags for the rich than they do about protecting residents from being shot? The London Breed I thought I knew would say No.
All San Francisco benefits from a thriving Tenderloin. From 1907 into the early 1960s, the Tenderloin was among The City’s most thriving neighborhoods. It still has destination bars, restaurants, Broadway-level theaters and other cultural and entertainment venues.
But the neighborhood can’t work if people don’t feel safe. The City acted on this principle in Union Square. Yet it still fails to ensure feelings of safety in the residential Tenderloin.
Mayor Breed has an historic opportunity to be the mayor who oversaw the Tenderloin’s return to its glory days. But City Hall must focus on what’s best for the residents, workers, small businesses of the Tenderloin.
And that’s not expanding drug activities to new sites in the neighborhood.
Randy Shaw is editor of Beyond Chron, where this opinion was originally published, and director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic.