Abraham Mohammed leans up against a delivery truck parked in front of his Mission Street shop with resigned disgust on his face. Visitors to the Mi Pueblito grocery store can barely approach on a sidewalk crammed with vendors and street people. Mohammed emigrated from Yemen 11 years ago to find a better life in San Francisco.
And for a while, he found it. Not so long ago, the corner of 24th and Mission was a community hub for Mohammed and his fellow shopkeepers and neighbors, close to transit and vibrating with city life. Now, the place has devolved into an open-air market that runs on stolen goods, drugs and crime.
“We run away from Yemen to try for more safety here,” the 42-year-old tells me. “But it’s worse.”
That’s a mouthful, considering the situation in the Middle Eastern nation. War. Famine. Strife. And it speaks volumes that today’s San Francisco compares in any way.
It’s been two weeks since BART built a chain link fence around its station at the Mission District intersection, hoping to calm down a public vending situation that had grown untenable. The plaza that sits atop the stop had become overrun with people selling everything from laundry detergent to underwear to fentanyl.
Simply put, it was an urban mess.
So, did the fences work? Yes and no. The southwest corner of the intersection has become quite civilized, with permitted vendors selling jewelry and knickknacks and handmade curios. Across the way, on the northwest corner, it’s a free-for-all. People emerging from the BART/Muni stop are met with open drug use and crowded sidewalks packed with people selling what appears to be stolen goods. Soap, shampoo, shoes, socks, power tools, bicycles. You name it, you can find it there for cheap. But you won’t find any permits. This is still unfettered commerce, sprinkled with a healthy dose of drugs and violence. Abraham says he has witnessed three stabbings at the site in recent weeks, which is about 100 feet from his storefront. He also says he saw a man with a gun.
“The police come in the morning and kick everyone out,” said Abraham. “Thirty minutes later, everyone comes back. That’s life at 24th and Mission.”
Supervisor Hillary Ronen, working with local community group Calle 24, supported the temporary fencing, which is expected to stand for 60 to 90 days. And so did many of the permitted vendors in the area.
Milagros Lopez, a 48-year-old single mother who lives in the neighborhood, has legally sold sterling silver, gold plated and stainless steel jewelry on the southwest corner for the past eight years. She welcomes the fence. It’s cut down on the people in the plaza who had made her feel unsafe.
“It’s wonderful,” she told me. “But they make it only for three months. They try to stop the illegal vendors. Because many people, you know, they steal items in the stores and they resell it here. All the street vendors that I have here (on the southwest corner of the intersection), most are legal. We are like a small community, and we work together. This fence — it’s more safe for us for many reasons. Because before that, it’s a lot of homeless people doing drugs behind me. They did many bad things, and looks very ugly.”
Indeed, all you have to do is look across the street and see what her corner used to look like. She’s not happy with the situation over there, and feels for her friends who are the only permitted vendor on the northeast side of the intersection. They sell flowers. Lopez is resentful of the newcomers selling stolen goods.
“I paid my taxes. I’m legal in this country,” she says proudly. “I don’t need support from this government. If I don’t work, I don’t eat. I am a single mother. And I love this country. And I appreciate The City. Because they helped me for many years to establish my business.”
That process of help is about to change. For years, vendors went through the San Francisco Police Department to obtain permits. Due to a new law, authored by Ronen and passed in April, vendors will now have to petition Public Works for permission to sell on the streets. The law went into effect in June, but the permit process has not been established yet by DPW, so the legal vendors wait. It’s expected to be up and running this month, and current vendors have been given a moratorium in the meantime.
“I think that what has been great is that we have been able to do education before something has been implemented,” said Susana Rojas, executive director of Calle 24. “Usually, it just happens and that’s it. I’m really happy about that. DPW has also been in really strong communication with Calle. I think there will be a protection for those long-standing vendors, those selling jewelry and that sort of thing.”
In the meantime, the fence remains. And the wisdom of issuing vending permits through another agency remains to be seen.
“We work with the small businesses and the vendors, and we were hearing them loud and clear that they didn’t feel safe,” said Rojas. “They really like the fence. The amount of people on the plaza has reduced. We know it’s not perfect. We know it’s not over. But at least we can see people are making a strong effort to make it safe. Make it like it used to be with music and vendors.”
Of course, like any situation in San Francisco, there is a dissenting point of view. Local resident Joshua Baltodano feels the fencing is discriminatory, and wrote a scathing editorial in the San Francisco Bay View titled “Building the Wall in SF: Ronen and Calle 24 fence off BART plaza vendors, launch exclusionary permit system.” In it, he argues the “fences alienate and harm our community.”
I spoke to Baltodano, and he’s coming from a good place. He cares deeply about the neighborhood.
“Ultimately, I’m just kind of frustrated with the situation,” he told me. “I’m a local here. I was just walking by and I keep seeing that fence. It just kind of pissed me off. It feels like you’re an animal. Even when you go to BART, you have to go through an obstacle course. It feels classist; it’s us against them.”
Again, I understand his point of view, and I don’t think anyone wants to see fencing surrounding BART plazas. As Rojas told me, she looks forward to a return to the good old days when you could smell food and hear music in the public space. But like many of the blatant quality-of-life issues in San Francisco, this isn’t the story of unpermitted vendors. Or discrimination. Or equity. This is a story about drugs. Drug users are crowding 24th and Mission to sell stolen goods and fund their next fix. That’s the bottom line.
Many of them have come from the Tenderloin where a police crackdown is pushing regulars to other neighborhoods. And the proximity to public transit makes it easier for vendors hawking stolen goods to go out on the prowl and return to this newly formed marketplace. They are crowding out and intimidating the long-standing vendors that ply their trade legally in the neighborhood.
Joshua S., a self-described “traveling man” who recently arrived in San Francisco from New York City, explained the situation in plain English. Speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid prosecution, he said, “The BART system is perfect for this. People just ride around to steal and come back here. The system is set up for it.”
He went on to say many vendors are now traveling to the East Bay to pilfer drugstores after Walgreens and CVS stores in San Francisco tightened security. He also couldn’t believe how blatant the drug use is in The City. He described a man in a wheelchair asking for help shooting up. Joshua obliged, knowing his way around needles. But when a police car drove by, he started to run. The man in the wheelchair asked him why. “They won’t do anything.”
And that’s part of the problem, too. The police seem to be turning a relatively blind eye to the situation at 24th and Mission, giving vendors ample time to understand the permitting process before clearing out the area. They make a pass once or twice a day, according to people I spoke to, but the offenders return quickly. And no one appears to be getting cited or arrested.
SFPD and Ronen did not reply to requests for comment.
“It’s bad for business. It’s bad for us. We pay taxes,” said Abraham, the grocer. “Police can’t do anything about it.”
I asked him why. “I don’t know?” he said. “It’s crazy.”