City pulls the plug on the Tenderloin Center and safe-injection sites.
An attendee greets guests at the Tenderloin Center, June 2022

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 Brantsen 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. 

The Tenderloin Center, June, 2022.

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. 

Mayor London Breed calls for a crackdown in the Tenderloin in December, 2021, while a ‘glitch in the Matrix’ appears over her shoulder. Screen capture from KPIX-5.

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 Tenderloin, May 2, 2020. Photo by Kerim Harmanci.

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. 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Now that the DEA’s restrictive “X-waiver” requirement for prescribing buprenorphine/suboxone/etc. has been repealed, Docs and NP’s are no longer hamstrung in ability to RX these life saving drugs. Get folks onto “Bupe” via multiple MOUD mini-clinics (Medication for Opiate Use Disorder) and into true recovery programs instead, including aggressive mental health treatment for depression, etc. including attention to the root cause of nearly every addiction: Adverse Childhood Events.

  2. My wife and I went to the center 4 times. Not to get high,but to shower and put on clean cloths for job interviews. We are now both employed !!

  3. So we give junkies free money, free food, clean drugs, and a ready supply of Narcan in case they overdose. And that’s supposed to motivate them to get off drugs? What panel of half wits keeps coming up with these idiotic ideas?

  4. Campers,

    Base problem is world overpopulation.

    We need to cut the number of people by half for starters and best way I can think of to do that is to give adults ten thousand dollars to get sterilized.

    First people in line would be the junkies.

    Take ten million of the City’s Homeless budget and assign it to a ‘Mash’ style tent in front of City Hall to do the vasectomies which are an office procedure and you could have a thousand degens shooting blanks of which Ionesco would approve.

    Fox news would have a field day and spend money booking rooms for their crews.

    That from your ‘SFBulldog … Often wrong but never Silent

    On Purdy ?

    He’s poised because the game Sunday was the 47th game he’s been starting QB in the last 4 years.

    I doubt any 49’er has played that many games in a row.


  5. I thought there were mixed messages on drug use in the article. Nonetheless, getting chronic drug users into a meaningful rehab program would seem to be a better mor humane goal than giving drug addicts drugs and a safe place to “ shoot up”.

  6. The proposed site in the Mission District would cost the public Treasury $16,000 per day to operate. A bit ironic, considering that this is supposedly a charitable non profit enterprise!
    But, it would be no more a “Wellness Hub,” than a skid row bar is a “Sobriety Center;” a whorehouse is a “Health Spa;” or, the disappearance of billions in crypto is a program of, “Effective Altruism!”

  7. It’s hard to go against the dogma of “safe injection sites” when they’re labeled as compassionate. The true victims are the residents and merchants who have to live around these degens and suffer from their crimes. I moved back to SF after 10 years and am truly appalled that the city, and mission local, seem more focused on protecting those who ruin this city, than the middle class who have to fund their prolific abuse. Drug abusers need help kicking the habit, and should be forced into rehab and psych wards. Those who refuse to conform will eventually move elsewhere.

  8. Good. The Mayor is actually leading and listening to the people instead of the self serving progressive politicians chirping in her ear. The experiments with safe injection sites have clearly not worked and it is obvious thatbthisbinls not a money/funding problem. San Franciscans on all sides of the political spectrum have had enough of the drug industry and coddling users over responsible citizens. Your article is well written but, in my opinion, it is tone deaf to how the majority of San Franciscans feel about the topic now.

  9. Now it’s clear cutting …to save city! Economically it’s a simple decision, support citizens who pay taxes and businesses first ! Otherwise the decay will be on the increase.

  10. The problem with “safe injection” is that it’s a contradiction in terms. Haven’t over 300 potentially lethal overdoses been initiated at the “safe consumption site.”?
    And, while roughly 150,000 services were provided at a cost of $22 million, it is unsustainable at that price, do the math. Would you spend greater than $100 of your money to wash a load of laundry?
    And, the proposed “Wellness Hubs,” by definition, shouldn’t facilitate, enable, and indulge serious drug abuse. You wouldn’t call a skid row bar a “Sobriety Center,” would you?
    There’s too much money being thrown at the problem for anyone to want to solve it. Throttle the funding if you’re going to solve the problem.

  11. To see the day where people are more concerned about dangerous drug addicts than the innocent people that are harmed by their prescence. Where is the compassion for all the small mom and pop shop owners in the area that are being bankrupt by the ingoing traffic of drug addicts outside their doors?

    1. I would suggest that you read Karl Marx, to see how it works and how all the moving parts fit together. Specifically, I would recommend Marx’s infamous screed, “The Eighteenth Brumier of Louis Buenaparte.” Its a tale of social corruption throughout; and, it amounts to something of a blueprint for Marxist to facilitate the same, by organizing to benefit systematically off the exploitation of society as a whole.

  12. Harm reduction is a cult, change my mind. After decades and hundreds of millions of dollars and the problem continues to get bigger. For those safe injection apologists, where are your stats? You like to wear the scientific mask but you are innumerate. Literature shows that harm reduction alone is not the solution. You also need policing and social services.

    1. Joe,

      If you asked every junkie who came into one of these centers what they’d do if they were handed 10k cash how would they answer ?

      I’m betting most would give an answer that revolved around them leaving San Francisco.

      I’m not kidding one bit with this Sterilization (call it what it is) Project.

      If this ten million a year for a thousand cut junkies had been in place for the last ten years we’d have ten thousand less …

      Flesh it out for me (pun intended).

      Go Niners !!


    2. Simple. There is no greater form of harm reduction than abstinence. Instead of looking at them as opposites, view them as a continuum. Clean needles save us millions (treating AIDS and Hep C is costly) in taxpayer money. Check. One must be alive in order to get clean or abstinent. Check. So naloxone and needles. Then there’s that enabling threshold. Easy to make a case for life-saving interventions, like needles and overdose reversal. But foil, brillo, new pipes, etc… YES, that crosses into enabling. So: 1. You have to be alive to get clean. 2. Abstinence is the most effective form of harm reduction, not its nemesis. 3. The end.

  13. Enough of tax payer money funneled to the Homeless Industrial Complex. The kid gloves don’t work, the city is a cess pit and tax payers gets fleeced. Put the junkies in jail, clean up the city.

  14. The whole thing sounds super shady and will not help win back voter trust in city government after all those corruption scandals.

  15. Unfortunate we don’t have safe injection sites.
    It would be comforting to know I can inject myself with a lethal drug beyond the point of death and have somebody standing by at all times to revive me so I can have another go.

  16. The safe injection sites are anything but. Addicts need shelter, treatment, mental health triage & jobs and housing, not necessarily in that order.
    WHAT they don’t need is City sponsored enabling.
    I agree that addiction is tough to beat but we must try. We are losing too many young people to an epidemic far worse than COVID.
    The city of San Francisco has become the Wuhan of the fentanyl epidemic and it is destroying the fabric of our society and our city.
    Time to stop 🛑 half measures and move towards Boise V. Martin Compliance – which is the only way to LEGALLY – get the addicted off the streets and into triage & treatment.

  17. Deleting comments that disagree with your pro-junkie-lifestyle stance will not actually win hearts and minds to your side. It just exposes the fact that you cannot defend your position.

    1. No Russell. Screening out aggressive, half-bright comments making specious factual claims keeps the comments section from becoming a cesspool. These comments are also moderated in real-time, by working journalists; nobody is hovering over a computer waiting for your next pearl of wisdom.

      You are not owed a platform here. If you have arguments to make, make them in an intelligent, civil manner. If you can’t do that, your First Amendment rights enable you to disseminate literature or speak up on a street corner or park of your choosing.



      1. Isn’t that what your entire article is about? I’ve chased more homeless sketchy people off my street prowling cars or shooting up in a doorway than i care to admit. Talk to some police officers heaven forbid, and find out how many of these junkies are from san francisco… we are inviting losers to the city because they know they can have fun, and avoid prosecution

      1. Junkies don’t get better. Narcan will save them a few times but they all end up overdosing. We need to conserve this folks and start using this money for education annd infrastructure.

  18. How about showing some concern for non-junkies? Why not poll us on how we feel about these junkie paradise centers?

    We don’t need to arrest folks for drug use, but we definitely don’t need to keep inviting junkie tourism. They come here to use meth or fentanyl and shoplift. I do not care if they feel safe.

  19. “ a political cudgel for bad actors both outside and within this city.” please.
    apologists and enablers—Fucked Around and now they’re Finding Out. SF is pissed.