‘Recycled Approach’: Some SF Leaders, Activists Bristle at Plan to Ban Dealers from Tenderloin

Tents line Ellis Street in San Francisco's Tenderloin District, where homeless residents have made a makeshift camp. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)

A handful of San Francisco leaders and community activists have publicly opposed a plan announced this week by City Attorney Dennis Herrera to block more than two dozen drug dealers from entering the Tenderloin neighborhood.

The plan, which must be approved by a state Superior Court, is essentially a restraining order against 28 repeat-offender drug dealers, in an effort to prevent them from entering a roughly 50-square-block area, under penalty of fine or arrest. The civil injunctions will target specific dealers, from cities like Oakland, Hayward and San Jose, who have been known to frequent the neighborhood, selling fentanyl, methamphetamine, cocaine or heroin, Herrera said.

But immediately after Herrera made the announcement, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Public Defender Mano Raju both issued statements saying they don’t believe the plan will be effective. And community activists who have long fought against ‘gang injunctions’ in the city argue this is more of the same punitive approach that the city previously took with gang injunctions, one that will increase police presence and limit civil liberties.

But many Tenderloin residents and community leaders remain desperate for action.

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Since the beginning of the year, 81 people have died in the neighborhood from drug overdoses. And in the city at large, the availability and use of fentanyl is a growing concern. Use of the drug spiked in 2019 — a 70% increase over the previous year — and was the cause of more than half of the city’s 441 overdose deaths, according to the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents part of the Tenderloin, says his constituents are exhausted. Haney says he typically sees about 50 people selling and using drugs within just a block of his Hyde Street apartment. And although he has some hesitations about Herrera’s move, he thinks the plan will prompt a much-needed “disruption of the status quo”.

“We can have an understanding and a deep belief that the drug war in and of itself is an ineffective response, and ... also feel that those folks shouldn't be coming into this neighborhood day in and day out and doing that,” he said.

At Tuesday’s press conference, San Francisco Mayor London Breed voiced her support for the plan, stressing that the Tenderloin “has always had its challenges, but it has never been worse.”

The neighborhood’s current dismal conditions make sense to Jose Bernal, an organizer who grew up in the Tenderloin and still visits his family and friends there. Bernal used to work at Hospitality House, a local service organization, and knows that, with the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a major disruption of services and available resources, leaving many people more desperate than ever.

“Folks need dire support,” Bernal said. “They need a lot of help and we have to provide that somehow in the context of COVID, with where we're at right now, because I don't want our folks dying on the streets of overdoses.”

But in Herrera’s plan, Bernal sees overlaps with previous policies he has fought against.

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As a formerly incarcerated gang member, Bernal advocated against “gang injunctions,” which the city put into effect in 2006 in an effort to prohibit suspected gang members from entering certain “safety zones.”

Benal argued that the injunctions increased police harassment of Black and brown men, violating their civil liberties, while failing to address the root causes of crime.

“As opposed to having 40 cops deployed to the Tenderloin at once to arrest these ‘drug dealers,’ what does it look like to have 40 outreach workers at any given time?” Bernal said.

Raju, the city’s public defender, echoes that sentiment, saying additional enforcement of street-level sellers is not the answer.

“We should use our resources to provide meaningful alternatives to street-level dealers - including housing, job training, and employment,” Raju said in a press release. The focus, he added, should be on “getting at the source of the drug trade, which will continue to produce drugs so long as the demand exists.”

For his part, District Attorney Boudin says the plan will only target low-level dealers who have already been issued stay-away orders and are in some cases already being prosecuted in active criminal cases.

“Until the City is serious about treating addiction and the root causes of drug use and selling, these recycled, punishment-focused approaches are unlikely to succeed at doing anything more than making headlines,” he said in a statement.