The city, this month, shut down its Tenderloin Center at United Nations Plaza, where everyone in San Francisco government has long known that supervised drug consumption was taking place (but wasn’t supposed to admit to it).
And, despite what you may have read elsewhere, the city is decidedly not expediently creating a dozen “wellness hubs,” or any for that matter, where people can use drugs under supervision. “The City is not planning to open 12 new drug consumption sites,” reads an unambiguous statement from the Department of Public Health.
It’s not certain if anger and moral panic stirred up by the drug use at the Tenderloin Center led to political trepidation and a post-facto “indefinite hiatus” being decreed on planned safe consumption sites. But it certainly feels that way; the city bought properties, and had been in negotiations with providers to operate such sites, and now those plans are out the window. We’re told that the site on Geary Boulevard that the city purchased to be a potential safe consumption site is now sporting tiny houses.
Last week, the Gubbio Project’s Lydia Bransten told the Chronicle’s Heather Knight that the mayor’s office had abruptly pulled the plug on a planned safe-injection site at St. John the Evangelist church in the Mission.
This was not a one-off. Mission Local has spoken to another nonprofit set to run a long-planned safe-injection site that, around Dec. 1, had the rug pulled out from under it, just two weeks prior to its planned opening.
“Our experience was similar to Gubbio’s,” Mission Local was told. They were informed that the plan to open a safe consumption site was “paused” and “there is no timeline to open.”
The lack of on-the-record discussion from this nonprofit was explained by the secrecy mandated by the city. Some of its employees, in fact, never even knew their outfit was planning to operate a supervised drug-use site, and is now apparently not going to be operating one.
Yes, this is a weird and troubling way to do government.
And that’s because operating supervised drug-use sites would be a violation of both state and federal law. The City Attorney’s office knows this, and no doubt lets its government clients know it, too. But the law has forbidden safe consumption sites for quite some time, and San Francisco was planning to move forward anyway. Until, suddenly, it wasn’t.
San Francisco’s horrific drug epidemic and miserable on-street conditions remain a political cudgel for bad actors both outside and within this city. Whether due to legal issues, political issues, bad optics or all of the above, Mayor London Breed doesn’t figure to be expending any political capital to fast-track safe consumption sites; quite the opposite, in fact. And that’s regardless of what the science and economics reports say. And regardless of how many people are needlessly dead or dying underfoot.
Of course, the city did have a safe-consumption site: The Tenderloin Center, which closed on Dec. 4. But, like Fight Club, nobody in city government was supposed to talk about this.
You may recall the mayor’s farcical and politically theatrical declaration of emergency in the Tenderloin a year ago. That declaration enabled the expeditious creation of the so-called “linkage center,” but also led to a cacophony of inchoate goals and off-the-cuff statements masquerading as a “plan,” and a hair-on-fire organizational process instead of deliberative and participatory strategizing. The mayor’s repeated comments about using police to either arrest drug users or herd them to the “linkage” center forced her staffers into “walking back what she said so hard it looked like John Cleese and the Ministry of Silly Walks,” in the words of an attendee at numerous community meetings.
This lack of leadership and organization and forethought showed in the end product. That’s how a “linkage” center can be established when there’s serious doubt as to whether there are adequate services to “link” to, and if the target population is ready or willing to accept these services. That’s why city officials insisted that “supervised consumption” on-site was unacceptable, but blithely nodded their heads when they were informed that, instead, the site would be doing “overdose prevention.” Even a moment of serious thought ought to have revealed that to be a neat bit of semantic sleight-of-hand and a difference without a distinction.
Some 333 overdoses were, in fact, prevented at the Tenderloin Center. And nobody died there. It stands to reason that many of those users will simply go back to unsupervised consumption. And die.
The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.
The fallout of chaotic scenes of drug use at the Tenderloin Center, a stand-in for life in San Francisco writ large for Fox News, et al., does indeed have a lengthy half-life. The simple, humanizing element of this center is receiving significantly less attention.
In February and March, three dozen visitors to the Tenderloin Center were polled. When asked if they felt safe there, 32 said “yes.” Four said “maybe.” Nobody said “no.”
“It’s cool, because we’re not in front of the kids or tourists, and it just looks bad enough when we’re using,” answered one participant. “People really try to get to know me, one on one. I’m not being judged for being a junkie, and it’s good, for a change, to be treated like a human being.”
Separate and apart from compassion or benevolence, it’s just practical to give desperate people who use drugs a safe place to do so, if you want to avoid overt drug use and dope paraphernalia underfoot. If the goal is to keep people from using in the streets, they’ll have little incentive to head to a site where they aren’t permitted to do drugs. They’ll miss out on housing assessments, getting connected to general assistance, receiving food stamps or connections to shelter opportunities — let alone three hot meals a day, showers and laundry.
“The closure of that center is a damn shame,” summed up Gina McDonald of Mothers Against Drug Addiction and Death. “What it was doing in connecting people to housing and showers and laundry; imagine what it could’ve done.”
And yet, since it was never clear exactly how it was supposed to operate, the Tenderloin Center also had its issues. McDonald and her group support safe-injection sites. But she feels the drug use at the Tenderloin Center was not well-handled, and was not how the center was sold to the public. All in all, the planning and execution was not well thought out, “and I don’t think things ever are, with this administration. It was an emergency. I get that. But it’s been an emergency for years, right?”
Even among those who didn’t object to drug use on site, the clandestine nature of it and the mission creep from a linkage center to a wink-wink safe-injection site were seen as problematic. This improvisational setup also makes it very hard to establish clear sets of reportable goals and outcomes. Yes, you can create a welcoming space where a drug user may be able to feel comfortable enough to begin contemplating sobriety, but how do you quantify that? The Tenderloin Center cost some $12 million to operate, and it’s not entirely certain what that bought.
And then, there’s the basics: “Most veterinarians have cats go in one door and dogs go in another,” says Del Seymour of Code Tenderloin, a recovering drug user whose organization helped staff the center. “There’s a reason for that.”
The center, Seymour says, did not adequately separate people using drugs from people fighting to kick drugs: “If I go into recover, and I’m standing in line behind the guy cleaning his pipe? That’s not fair,” he says. “I remind everyone that you cannot be around dope fiends. Even if they are your family.”
The City Attorney’s office, sensibly, declined to reveal to Mission Local the advice or analysis it provided to its municipal clients on this matter. But it doesn’t take a clairvoyant to intuit that dictum No. 1 was to not talk about supervised drug-use. That was probably dictum No. 2 as well.
But the city talked about supervised drug use at the Tenderloin site. Worse, it wrote it down, admitting to it in written documents.
It’s a problem when city government can’t overtly acknowledge what it’s overtly doing. That’s not just bad government, it borders on something out of Eugène Ionesco. But it’s also a problem because, at present, what the city was doing constitutes a potential federal crime.
This remains the professed reason that the city isn’t moving forward on its plans to open “Wellness Hubs.” But here’s the thing: It’s too late. The damage is done.
In the eyes of the feds, thanks to the 1980s-era law known as “The Crackhouse Statute,” a safe-consumption site is arguably indistinguishable from a drug den. And the statute of limitations for violating this statute is five years.
So, yes, in the event of a Republican victory in 2024, there’s ample time for a future GOP Rhodes Scholar cosplaying-as-a-yokel Attorney General to prosecute San Francisco for its overt flouting of the law at UN Plaza. We are already exposed.
“It’s a serious felony,” sums up Kellen Russoniello, a senior staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance.
Since the city rented the land housing the safe consumption site, Russoniello continued, then the feds could potentially come after San Francisco’s government.
What a mess: And even if you considered the goings-on at the Tenderloin Center to be a mess, it seems an even greater mess may be in store. In the meantime, McDonald notes, the services we hoped to “link” drug-users to are crippled by understaffing, undermining the ostensible raison d’être for opening the TL center in the first place, and putting the city in a bad place moving forward.
“Instead of spending millions to set up this center, why didn’t they build a robust system to help these people?” she asked. “When my daughter got off the street, I dragged her to Alameda County where she accessed treatment — easily! Why can’t we do that?”
One year after the conditions in the Tenderloin spurred a mayoral declaration of emergency, these questions aren’t even close to being answered.
The city continues to fail its worst-off residents, and continues to fail the Tenderloin. Whatever one’s thoughts on the efficacy of the Tenderloin Center, the city has cut and run. The TL, as ever, has been left to fend for itself.