Three Recent Overdose Deaths in Haight-Ashbury Prompt Discussion of Safety, Public Health Issues

Three men were found dead of apparent overdoses in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, prompting community concern.  (GPS/Flickr)

The Community Room at a police station in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood overflowed with residents Saturday during a public safety meeting hosted by San Francisco Supervisor London Breed.

The residents, both housed and homeless, were there to weigh in on the city's attempts to address drug use, homelessness and crime in the area.

Three men died in the neighborhood of an apparent drug overdose Thursday morning, and earlier this month, a man was fatally shot.

Drug Use

Health officials suspect fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is to blame for the three deaths earlier this week. The men likely smoked meth laced with it, according to the medical examiner.

Immediately following the overdoses, the Department of Public Health advised drug users to get Narcan, a drug intended to stop an overdose, and fentanyl testing strips, from the city's needle exchange sites.

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But those needle exchanges are usually only open during the day, which Christian Calinsky, co-founder of a homeless outreach program, says is to blame for those overdose deaths.

"The problem with what happened over the night is that we don't have a 24-hour drop-in where we have case workers on scene that are walking around the neighborhood making sure people are alive," Calinksy said. "People are just walking over bodies where they can't tell if they're alive or dead."

Many housed residents simply don't want to see people using drugs on the street.

"If you are homeless, and doing drugs, you should not just be moved from one block to the next with more police officers," said a man who stepped up to the mic during the meeting but did not give his name. "We need the DA's office to actually prosecute people."

Homelessness

Housed residents seemed to be split on their opinions of homeless people as a safety risk.

Some did not want to equate homelessness with crime and danger.

"I am not afraid to leave my house in this neighborhood," Katherine Roberts said at the open mic. "You cannot equate these incidents to having to step around a group kids with dogs who aren't posing a threat."

But others, like another woman named Katherine, who didn't give her last name, said they were threatened.

"When I walk on Haight Street and there are 14 kids, many of whom are transients with pit bulls and I can't get through the street, I feel frightened and intimidated as do my daughters," she said.

Breed said the city is in the process of buying a McDonald's in the neighborhood, which they plan to tear down and turn into affordable housing. Some at the meeting suggested turning the bottom floor of that building into a 24-hour drop-in center for the homeless. Breed said there will be another community meeting to discuss the building.

Crime

Many residents asked for an increase in beat cops doing foot patrols in the neighborhood.

In the last six years, the number of beat officers in the area has gone from two to 16, according to Breed, and she said she would like to add more.

Una Bailey, the police captain assigned to the area, is also pushing for more beat cops.

"Seeing the presence of a police officer makes people feel safer," Bailey said. Several homeless people in the crowd snickered at that comment.

Police Chief Bill Scott said he is asking for more funding to add more police officers to the force so he can assign more beat cops.