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Tenderloin’s Troubles Take Center Stage in City Elections

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People walk up and down a street wearing various clothing styles.
People walk through the Tenderloin neighborhood, now a part of District 5 in San Francisco, on April 5, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Nikysha Parker-Dalton walks to work through the Tenderloin.

The blocks between her apartment and the Glide Foundation, where she’s a community advocate, are strewn with crushed cardboard boxes, shopping bags and piles of feces.

One morning last week, a KQED reporter and photographer walked the route Parker-Dalton takes. A cluster of tents, tarps and bicycles in front of the Cutting Ball Theater obstructed most of the sidewalk on Taylor Street, and on Turk Street, a woman sat on the curb wrapped in a plastic trash bag. Two blocks past Glide, a man was splayed out on Ellis Street with his arms above his head and his feet dangling over the curb.

“You live with the lack of cleanliness of the streets — the drug paraphernalia and usage openly, the tents that make it so you can’t even walk,” Parker-Dalton told KQED.

The Tenderloin’s troubles are at the center of this year’s city elections. The poor street conditions, exacerbated by San Francisco’s yearslong battle to support unhoused residents while simultaneously curtailing drug dealing and drug overdoses, have led the neighborhood’s small businesses to struggle. Some residents and tourists feel unsafe on the neighborhood’s streets. Others who work and live in the area, like Parker-Dalton, just want the city to provide solutions for those stuck between opioid addiction and homelessness.

Two men sitting on the sidewalk while another man on the left wearing a neon yellow and orange jacket stands near parked cars on the street.
People sit on the sidewalk in the Tenderloin on April 5, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Two weeks ago, two mayoral candidates announced emergency declarations around fentanyl. Daniel Lurie’s plan would give people on the street a choice: enter treatment or face arrest. A day after Lurie, Mark Farrell released a similar plan. If elected, Farrell would request more California Army National Guard soldiers in the Tenderloin and South of Market. The plans are comparable to Mayor London Breed’s 2021 Tenderloin state of emergency, which led to the creation of the Tenderloin Center, a place for drug users to connect with harm reduction services.


The city’s drug epidemic worsened despite Breed’s declaration.

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San Francisco recorded 806 drug overdose deaths in 2023, the deadliest year on record. About 80% of the deaths were fentanyl-related. During 2022’s redistricting, the Tenderloin was added to District 5, which now includes Japantown, Western Addition and Haight Ashbury. The overdose data and discontent over street conditions make Dean Preston, the district representative on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, vulnerable in his November reelection bid.

Preston, the board’s only Democratic Socialist who said he is focused on tenants rights and alternatives to policing, has two opponents. Bilal Mahmood, a tech entrepreneur, said he wants to digitize City Hall to reduce red tape. Autumn Looijen, who co-launched San Francisco’s school board recall in 2022, told KQED she will concentrate on thwarting the fentanyl crisis.

While Preston and his challengers squabble over ideological differences, residents and business owners interviewed for this story said they want elected officials to take a new approach to cleaning up the Tenderloin’s streets.

Freddy Martin, a congregational life and community engagement manager at Glide, has lived in the Tenderloin for more than 20 years. He said getting people into housing should be a priority, but making sure they have access to wraparound mental health and addiction resources is key to keeping them off of the streets.

“We need to be dealing with the trauma and issues people have that perpetuate the conditions they struggle with,” Martin said. “Not having their mental health issues addressed or access to healthcare is part of the problem.”

A tourist bus, a person on a bike and a vehicle drive down a street with murals painted on the sides of buildings.
A tourist bus passes through the Tenderloin on April 5, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

According to Martin, elected officials should be asking Tenderloin community members what housing and drug rehabilitation services they need if they want to see a positive, permanent change.

“These issues can’t be solved in the chambers in City Hall or in a meeting once a week,” he said. “You have to go to where people are at and meet them at that level.”

Filling vacant supportive housing units is a solution, Martin believes. According to the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, there are more than 600 vacancies. This is down from just over 1,000 in September when Preston passed a resolution urging HSH to reduce the number of vacant units by 50% in 90 days. As of this month, about 36% of the vacancies have been filled.

“We have the homes; we have a lot of the resources. We just need to be more aggressive and bold,” said Preston, who has opposed Breed’s drug and homelessness policies.

Mahmood, who worked as a policy analyst in the Obama Administration, believes it’s too difficult for people to acquire supportive housing.

“One of the reasons people are in the streets is because it’s easier to sleep in a tent than it is to apply to get a bed,” he told KQED.

Mahmood, who rents in the Tenderloin, said he would advocate for a technology-based strategy to track homeless people, identify their health status and get them into housing. He has argued that the city’s existing tracking system is ineffective and outdated. At 10:30 a.m. today, he is planning to unveil his plan to end open-air drug markets at the corner of Market and Seventh streets.

Parker-Dalton, 39, said that the city needs to designate spaces for those who choose not to be housed.

“You have people that don’t want to be inside,” the decadelong Tenderloin resident said. “They don’t want to be confined. They have been on the streets for as long as they can remember.

“I’m not necessarily saying put them in housing, but I believe safe camping sites could be a solution.”

Martin said harm reduction strategies are necessary to address the fentanyl crisis. He would like to see the Tenderloin Center, which closed in December 2022, return. The site was part of Breed’s plan to reduce overdose deaths and increase access to addiction services. According to city data, 333 overdoses were reversed at the Tenderloin Center. Critics of the site, including Farrell, said it became a safe consumption area.

A bicyclist rides in the street by parked cars and stores.
A bicyclist rides by the Tilted Brim in the Tenderloin on April 5, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Justin Bautista owns Tilted Brim, a clothing store on Larkin Street. He said when he moved into the space in 2016, it was a thriving commercial corridor. Now, there are empty storefronts on his block. Bautista said groups like the Tenderloin Community Benefit District’s Clean Team remove debris and respond to 311 calls, but their efforts aren’t enough.

“I’m in Little Saigon, and we have some of the best restaurants in the city,” Bautista said. “People would come from all over the city to eat at these restaurants. People still do, but it’s in a much fewer number.

“When you come to the Tenderloin, the optics are very bad. It’s heartbreaking, and it’s hard to live with.”

One solution Looijen has suggested is designating areas around businesses where unhoused people cannot congregate. She thinks this will encourage residents and tourists to visit the neighborhood.

A U-Haul van parked in front of a home.
A moving van is parked outside of a home on Haight Street on April 4, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“We should have a zone where people can go to the amazing restaurants in Little Saigon without being afraid that they’re going to get hurt on the way there,” she told KQED. “It doesn’t solve the problem of crime existing, but I do think it makes it so that people can get to the services in their neighborhood.”

Parker-Dalton isn’t sure clearing encampments and restricting where people can gather will do much to rehabilitate the neighborhood. She pointed to the skate park that opened in U.N. Plaza in November. Many people who used to hang around the plaza moved down to Seventh Street, she said.


“People migrate to other streets,” she said. “When you have a heavy police presence on one block, people move to another.”

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