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Backlash by the Bay

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Backlash by the Bay

San Francisco residents are fed up with city officials’ lack of action on open-air drug use. June 27, 2021
California
Public safety
Politics and law

Tucked deep in San Francisco’s sixth district is Dodge Place, a residential street located in the notorious Tenderloin neighborhood. It’s been overtaken by drug users who come to get high, descend into madness, and then destroy themselves and their surroundings. Dodge is a dead end, literally and figuratively—a combat zone, with all sides fighting for their lives.

Citizens’ cries for backup have gone virtually unanswered. Elected officials and government bodies from the district’s supervisor, Matt Haney, to the Department of Public Health have abandoned residents so completely that it’s hard not to wonder if the neglect isn’t deliberate.

Though most of the sixth district, an area that includes City Hall, already rivals the world’s worst slums for its inhumane conditions, Dodge Place is a particularly intense concentration of immiseration. In effect, the dead-end street is at the end of a funnel, into which flow customers from San Francisco’s most rampant illegal drug trade. In fact, mere steps away from the street, residents recently held a rally against the scourge of fentanyl, the potent synthetic opioid responsible for the majority of the city’s fatal overdoses. Organized by journalist Michael Shellenberger, the rally focused on Jacqui, a distraught mother searching for her addicted, homeless son. Jacqui pleaded for help, and community members raged against the city’s inaction. Politicians gave speeches, including Haney, who proclaimed his outrage, conceded government’s failings, and told the crowd to hold him accountable.

Yet the death toll from drug abuse continues to escalate. Data from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner indicate that fatal overdoses this year in San Francisco are on pace to exceed the 2020 total, a record-breaking year in which more than 700 died.

Hanging around in the Tenderloin is dangerous. Gangs rule the drug-dealing business. Scores of dealers, nearly all young males from Mexico and Central America, openly sell narcotics. Gunfire and homicides are common. On June 14, the San Francisco Police Department’s Tenderloin station reported three shooting incidents, with five victims, and 29 arrests on the corner. Law enforcement doggedly does its part, but the arrestees nearly always return to their spots within hours.

As mayhem in the Tenderloin intensifies, many who have just made drug purchases drift over to Dodge Place so that they can use away from the drama. Once there, they create their own brand of chaos. The result is a place so bizarre and horrific that adequate descriptions sound hyperbolic.

At any given time, dozens of people congregate in the small alley to inject or smoke their substance of choice. Teenagers to seniors, of all races and demographics, jab needles into their bloody, bloated limbs, hands, and feet. One inexplicably common figure is a man neatly dressed for a day at the office who drives syringes deep into other people’s necks. Soon after imbibing, users stand still as statues but bent at the waist, colloquially known as the “fentanyl fold.” Some collapse and crawl, while others sit listlessly on the curb, lining the walls. Or they wander, run, or flail, screaming at each other as well as invisible demons. Many urinate and defecate in their clothes, on the pavement or doorsteps, despite the 24-hour facilities nearby.

Residents have attempted to beautify their alley by lining it with large flower pots, but the planters are routinely used as toilets. Any remaining growing thing falls prey to people in fits of drug-induced psychosis. Wire mesh now tops the planters, but it hasn’t proved effective at stopping the abuse.

Life on Dodge is worsening. The biohazards alone, from prolific human waste to piles of dirty needles and burned foil with fentanyl residue, have made the local environment toxic.

Chris Canning, captain of SFPD’s Tenderloin Station, agrees that the situation is unacceptable. “Families, children, elderly folks have to maneuver and walk though people using drugs,” he says. “It has a devastating impact on the people who live there and who have to deal with that. Their feelings of fear, anxiety, and concern are important.”

There is only so much law enforcement can do, though. San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin resists prosecuting the dealers whom officers arrest, claiming that these individuals, often illegal immigrants, are victims of trafficking (there is scant evidence for this assertion) who should be protected by the city’s sanctuary policy.

Dodge Place residents have tried to get the city to take action, begging for basic safety measures and help for those suffering and dying from drug addiction. A Twitter page, Dodge Place Tenderloin SF, showcases what residents experience every minute of each day with graphic videos and photos, but San Francisco officials collectively shrug their shoulders. Haney says that he’s a legislator, not a manager, so he can’t do much. (So much for accountability.) The public health department has opted for harm-reduction methods over detox and rehabilitation, providing people in the throes of addiction with fresh drug supplies and celebrating their ability to revive overdosing people with Narcan—until, of course, they can’t.

Public officials justify their inaction by citing rhetoric that the war on drugs does little more than incarcerate marginalized people. With the enactment of Proposition 47, a California law that reclassified many drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, places like the Tenderloin have become uncontrolled narcotic battlegrounds. Federal, state, and local authorities may have surrendered, but the violent foot soldiers haven’t.

The result, says one Dodge Place resident, is that law-abiding people are forced to live in horrific conditions with no governmental support. Not one city official has made the proclamation that the public most craves: “This ends now. Your safety is paramount. We will clamp down hard on the dealers and provide treatment—not drug supplies—to those who need it.”

But the backlash against ineffectual leaders is strengthening. Boudin is facing a recall election led by residents who predominately lean left but refuse to accept the escalating crime and devastation as normal. The latest San Francisco Chamber of Commerce poll found that 76 percent of citizens want more police officers in high-crime neighborhoods. With streets like Dodge Place in their jurisdictions, San Francisco officials who want to keep their seats or run for higher office will face the wrath of voters who are no longer complacent. A growing number of San Franciscans are prepared to fight politically for their city, one small alley at a time.

Photo by Jessica Christian/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

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