SF Supervisors Approve Mayor Breed's State of Emergency Declaration for the Tenderloin

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A person stands in the middle of the street and looks down the sidewalk where there are dozens of tents lined up
People live in tents that line a side street in the Tenderloin neighborhood. More than 40% of all drug overdoses in 2021 happened in the Tenderloin and neighboring SoMa, according to city data. (Rachel Bujalski for NPR)

San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood is officially in a state of emergency.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted Thursday night to approve Mayor London Breed’s order to declare a state of emergency in the long-beleaguered city neighborhood, where the needs of people suffering and dying from poverty and substance use disorders have clashed with the needs of nearby families, who are demanding relief from the psychological toll of continuous open-air drug markets and unregulated use.

Some of the supervisors who voted to approve the declaration still expressed their concerns that the ordinance may condone the criminalization of those experiencing substance use disorders in the Tenderloin.

“I will note, the mayor can crack down on the Tenderloin today no matter what we do,” said Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who represents the Mission and other neighborhoods.

However, during the meeting, the mayor’s staff promised not to use the emergency powers to boost police funding, but instead to enable more services to help people with substance use disorders.

“Between now and January, if they use a cent to increase [the San Francisco Police Department budget], we can cancel this order on the spot,” Ronen said. “I’m going to vote to approve this order today, but I’m going to watch this thing like a hawk.”

The supervisors had seven days to approve Breed’s emergency declaration for the Tenderloin, which will last 90 days. Eight supervisors voted to approve the order, with Supervisors Dean Preston and Shamann Walton voting no, and Supervisor Aaron Peskin absent.

In their vote to approve the measure, some members of the board cited a longstanding informal policy of voting alongside a supervisor on issues that affect the neighborhood that supervisor represents. Since Supervisor Matt Haney, who is running for State Assembly and represents the Tenderloin, backed the emergency order, other supervisors were swayed to join him.

Still, they did so amid publicly aired concerns. Breed spurred fears she would criminalize drug use when she announced earlier this month a new public safety strategy in the Tenderloin, calling for a "tough love" approach that would have more cops on the ground.

In her remarks, she said San Franciscans should be “less tolerant of all the bull— that has destroyed our city,” and suggested that people who did not accept services would be jailed.

Those words, and others from Breed, hung over the more than 10-hour-long meeting, as some of the supervisors argued people using drugs need care, not jail, to find healthier lives.

Ultimately, city staff delivered a softened version of Breed’s message to the supervisors.

"I can say unequivocally our office will not use authority in the emergency order to provide appropriations [of funding] to the police department," Mayor's Office Deputy Chief of Staff Andres Power told the board Thursday night.

Instead, Power and other staff said, the state of emergency would cut red tape and enable San Francisco agencies to lease a location near the Tenderloin to establish a “linkage site” to help connect people who use drugs to health services and resources, staffed by social workers.

Without the emergency order, it would take months, perhaps a year, to create such a site in the Tenderloin, city staff said at the meeting.

The order also would allow the city to more quickly hire 250 behavioral health staffers to help people with substance use disorders heal from their illnesses by blazing through “byzantine” civil-service rules, city staff said.

“Those are things that can absolutely save lives,” Haney said.

Despite those assurances, other supervisors said they were disappointed Breed didn’t attend the meeting herself to tell them how much, or how little, the police would be involved in her plan.

Supervisor Dean Preston, who represents Haight-Ashbury, the Fillmore and Japantown, among other neighborhoods, was openly critical of the emergency order, calling it a "publicity stunt."

Supervisor Connie Chan, who represents the Richmond neighborhood, also questioned the political nature of the declaration and asked why the mayor hadn't taken similar action earlier.

"If this declaration was truly about tackling the fentanyl crisis, where was this declaration when we voted to urge the mayor to do so in September of this year?" Chan said, referencing a resolution introduced by Haney.

Some supervisors worried approving the emergency order would tacitly endorse Breed's law-and-order messaging.

At a community market opening in the Tenderloin in mid-December, Breed was recorded on video saying, “We are going to make people who are dealing drugs, who are using drugs out in the open with no regard for the community, people who are assaulting and spitting on and stabbing and shooting and destroying this community, we are going to make life hell for them.”

Preston called out those words in the meeting — making “life hell” for those who use drugs — when public health experts consider substance use disorder to be a disease that can be treated.

At the meeting, SFPD Chief Bill Scott expressed frustration at the position his officers are placed in when addressing the sale and consumption of drugs in the Tenderloin.

"We're in this 'no-person's-land' where they're being asked not to arrest, and they're seeing people smoking fentanyl out on the streets," Scott said. "What tools do they have to address this, if they're not going to be arresting?"

In other critiques, Supervisor Shamann Walton questioned why there wasn’t an emergency order when homicides rose in the southeast of the city, which he represents, and Chan questioned why the mayor didn’t have similar urgency around attacks against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.

Hundreds of people called in to comment on the vote during the public meeting. Those supporting Breed’s emergency order ran the gamut: Some lauded Breed’s plan as compassionate for boosting access to services, while others embraced more police action, even going so far as to suggest jailing drug dealers on Alcatraz, or encouraging the police to commit violence against drug users and dealers alike. Callers often called the Tenderloin a “dystopia,” and called for “order.”

Other callers lived with their families in the Tenderloin, and were calling for help.

“Don't forget that children and young people are affected in their mental health directly. It’s a day-to-day situation where they’re offered drugs and are afraid of being shot,” said Norma Carrera, a 26-year Tenderloin resident who spoke in Spanish with the aid of an interpreter.

Thomas Wolf, who previously struggled with substance abuse and became notable in San Francisco for going sober after his arrest by city police, told the board, “I’m alive today, and in recovery, because I was held accountable when I broke the law to support my addiction. Accountability is the cornerstone of recovery.”

People speaking publicly against Breed’s emergency order sometimes characterized it as police overreach, even though the mayor’s office pledged in the meeting not to add funding to policing by using the order.

Callers repeatedly described fear of the police, citing the police killings of George Floyd and Alex Nieto. They also often suggested officials boost funding for the Community Alternative Response Team (CART), a citywide program designed to connect unhoused people with community workers, as opposed to police.

Jessica Hernandez, an 18-year-old who said they were unhoused, said “instead of a police crackdown,” Breed should increase funding for housing initiatives to aid those living on the streets.

“I don’t want to live in fear,” they said.

Peter Murphy, a Tenderloin resident who works at the Mental Health Association of San Francisco, said his agency opposes the emergency order and any measure that would criminalize substance use disorders.

“I identify as an addict and an alcoholic. The only thing that’s worked for me is voluntary treatment,” he said, and suggested the city fund CART. “This is not the time to repeat the mistakes of the past, with over-policing the Tenderloin.”

Deaths attributable to drug overdoses have increased more than 200% in San Francisco since 2018, and last year, more than 700 people died from drug overdoses in the city, more than the number who died from COVID-19, according to Breed's proclamation of a local emergency.

Nearly 600 people have died of drug overdoses through November of this year, with nearly half the deaths occurring in the Tenderloin and the neighboring South of Market neighborhood, the proclamation said. These areas make up 7% of San Francisco’s population.

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin joined the city’s public defender Mano Raju at a news conference on Monday to denounce the mayor’s plan, saying that jailing people experiencing substance use disorders, mental health issues and homelessness would not work.

“If arrests and prosecutions alone could solve the drug crisis in this country or in this city, it would have been solved long ago,” Boudin said. “We’ve invested over a trillion dollars in fighting the so-called war on drugs, and where has it gotten us?”

Boudin said the “raw human suffering” he sees in the neighborhood outrages him. But using outdated methods won’t make people any safer, and the city has other options, said Boudin, who worked in the public defender’s office before becoming DA.

Among local community activists, reaction to Breed's declaration has been mixed, at best.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, last week slammed the mayor's strategy.

“It's really clear that Mayor Breed is vilifying and degrading people who are living in poverty,” she said, calling it a shortsighted political response to the “misleading flood of media hysteria around crime.”

Pointing to Proposition C, the 2018 voter-approved measure that directs hundreds of millions of dollars a year to pay for services for unhoused people in the city, Friedenbach said Breed was already “sitting on very carefully crafted solutions to these issues that the community has been calling for, with feedback and expertise from unhoused community members themselves.”

Chan, the supervisor representing the Richmond, said at the meeting that San Francisco has seen police-focused plans to address drug use and homelessness in the past, and they haven’t succeeded — because the problem still lingers.

“I’ve been in city government for almost two decades, serving under four different mayors. We’ve seen this all before. It’s why we know it’s not going to work. From Care Not Cash, to the sit-lie ordinance, to the [Proposition] Q tent prohibition. Different slogans, but the same tactics of criminalizing the poor and the unhoused. Different players, same game, and we know they don’t work, because we’re suffering from these measures’ cumulative impact on our streets right now,” Chan said.

She added, “We know the solution, colleagues, and that work is hard, to implement policy solutions that may not garner news attention. Work that includes meaningful investment in the health care system, public education, workforce development and housing security not just for the homeless, but working families to stop them from becoming homeless in the first place.”

This post includes reporting from The Associated Press and KQED's Kate Wolffe, Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí, Matthew Green and David Marks.

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