Juliana McNeil welcomed the crowd of reporters into the living room, excited to chat. McNeil is one of the 400 people a day who regularly use the Tenderloin Center, the linkage site Mayor London Breed created earlier this year as part of a crackdown in the Tenderloin and an effort to connect homeless residents with services.
For the first time since the Tenderloin Health Center at 1170 Market St. was established in January, city officials allowed the media to tour the ground floor facilities. Since its opening, the center has some 400 to 500 regular visitors, and all guests have made some 46,343 visits, said Krista Gaeta, the center’s interim director and former deputy director of the nonprofit Tenderloin Housing Clinic.
The Center was closed during the press tour, so it was impossible to observe how homeless residents were using the resources. The only guest present was McNeil, who was clearly enthusiastic.
The center does not accept overnight guests, but offers a multitude of services, like hot meals, laundry, showers, housing referrals, and a place to safely use drugs, all of which are run by different city departments and nonprofit staff.
McNeil, who was previously living on the streets of Oakland and is now, presumably, in San Francisco, said the Tenderloin Center has given her food and a hygiene kit, and staff are finding her permanent housing.
“I came here and they embraced me,” McNeil said. “I’m building myself again [and] my trust with people. The staff really helps you. I couldn’t be happier.”
Pleased with the service, McNeil tells other unhoused women to visit the center. “Come and get you a bus pass. Come and get housed. Come and get whatever you’re going to need, because nobody else is going to embrace you like San Francisco does — not Berkeley, not Richmond, not Oakland.”
It’s unclear how many of the regular guests are among San Francisco’s homeless population.
The center opens daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., except on Thursdays, when it opens from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. for staff training. Guests line up outside 1170 Market St. across the Civic Center BART station by a fence marked with “Tenderloin Center” signs and information. Once inside, guests go through a “low-barrier” check-in and store items in bins with the nonprofit Urban Alchemy. Large items like bikes get stowed on upper floors.
In the hallway directly to the right of the check-in area are small offices where guests can connect to services. The rooms are staffed by city and nonprofit employees, many of whom have also experienced drug use, homelessness, or incarceration.
One office is dedicated to the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, which has placed 1,064 guests in shelter or permanent housing so far. Recently, a woman who was human-trafficked was placed in a domestic violence shelter in the same day, according to staff.
Other offices house Urban Alchemy, and another provides a “one-stop shop” where guests can receive job referrals, food stamps, and MediCal.
As of April 22, the center enrolled 185 visitors for this one-stop-shop benefit programs, Gaeta said; there have been 2,913 referrals of all types in total.
Code Tenderloin, a nonprofit founded by Del Seymour, who was previously unhoused, sets up guests with case management and enrolls them in a course on computer literacy. The nonprofit staff work with formerly incarcerated folks, too, and sometimes act as “mediators” to parole officers and keep guests on track with court dates, said Code Tenderloin executive director Donna Hilliard.
Further into the building is the living room, which appeared designed to give both resources and a sense of community. Counselors are present in the living room to help guests with sobriety and recovery through wellness activities, like journal writing and support groups. Brightly colored paper lanterns, a community board, a library, a television, and comfy looking chairs greet visitors, as well as boxes of Narcan and water bottles.
McNeil finds the living room wonderful. “It’s a place to unwind, and you can come to be yourself,” McNeil said, standing in front of framed posters reading “IMMIGRANTS & REFUGEES: THIS IS HOME.”
Outdoors is a large courtyard where, in one corner, guests can use drugs under the supervision of staff. It is less resourced than a safe-consumption site, but staff call 911 and use Narcan on guests during overdoses. About 85 reversals have occurred thus far, and staff have distributed 898 doses of Naloxone total. Guests prefer to use in the courtyard instead of the streets where it may be less safe or more stigmatizing, said Hilliard. No one is forced to “detox” or get help until they’re ready.
In San Francisco, 1,310 people died of drug overdoses in 2020 and 2021. Narcan prevented many more.
Opposite the space where people use drugs is a circle of colorful lawn chairs where guests hang out and drugs are prohibited. Nearby is a sign listing all available daily services. According to city data, guests took 4,661 showers, did 1,474 loads of laundry, and ate 32,460 meals (there are three offered daily).
Last winter, Mayor London Breed and the Board of Supervisors announced a State of Emergency in the Tenderloin, which has experienced issues with open-air drug dealing, homelessness, and crime. The Tenderloin Center, previously dubbed the Tenderloin Linkage Center, started operating as a partial solution to the emergency.
But these problems still abound in other parts of the Tenderloin. Early Thursday morning, people experiencing homelessness, peddling cigarettes, and using drugs still hung around the edges of the Civic Center BART station. It’s unclear what effect the emergency and its extra policing and security has had.
Breed also allocated $1 billion toward addressing homelessness, the majority of which was raised through Proposition C.
At present, San Francisco reports 7,750 unhoused people, which is a decline compared to previous years, thanks to services. In a town hall, city officials said about 70 percent of San Francisco’s unhoused population are city natives.