Over the past two years, San Francisco has seen more than 1,360 drug overdose fatalities—more than double the number of Covid-19 deaths over roughly the same period. Open drug use and escalating violence in the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood forced Mayor London Breed to make an “emergency declaration” last December, resulting in the opening of a “Linkage Center” intended to connect the mentally ill or addicted homeless to basic services. The city selected Urban Alchemy—the 800-pound gorilla in the world of private, nonprofit social-services contractors—as the site’s operator. Mere days after opening, news emerged that the Linkage Center was also operating as a drug-consumption site, in apparent violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Supervised and “safe” consumption sites are part of a long list of troubling ideas to come out of progressive-run cities. In my neighborhood of Venice—a three-and-a-half-mile-long seaside community in Los Angeles with more than 2,000 homeless people living on its streets—residents have grown concerned by rumors that the city has approved a consumption site. Over the past few weeks, Urban Alchemy has moved into our Senior Center, adjacent to an elementary school—though the city recently put on hold plans to open a “decompression center” at the site for people suffering drug-related or mental-health crises.
So I decided to visit San Francisco’s Tenderloin to witness firsthand what those progressive ideas had created. My guide was Jenny Chan, a Chinese immigrant who grew up in the Tenderloin.
We visited the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library, which, in 2018, made Curbed’s list of America’s 20 most beautiful libraries for its dramatic skylight and grand staircase that rises four stories. On our visit, we witnessed a man being held down and strapped into a stretcher bed by San Francisco sheriffs and paramedics. As we waited for safe passage, we overheard that the man was homeless and suffering from schizophrenia. Schizophrenia-sufferers require lifelong treatment, since their disordered thinking and behavior impair daily functioning; here in California they are left to sleep on our streets.
The library’s parking lot has become notorious as the largest of the city’s “safe sleeping villages.” Seventy tents are spaced out in painted squares, providing access to steady meals, electricity for charging phones, toilets, fresh water, hand-washing stations, and showers for homeless individuals. The city government pays Urban Alchemy $60,000 per tent, per year to manage this site. Locals have criticized the steep price tag—around twice as expensive as the median cost of a one-bedroom apartment—but city officials tout its success and praise it as a model.
Observing the sleeping village from inside the library, I found the name ironic, as there was little sleeping going on. A group of men were dismantling bikes and motorcycles in what appeared to be a chop-shop operation. Unleashed dogs ran around. Small plumes of white smoke billowed out from the tents. I didn’t see much difference between these well-funded municipal encampments and L.A.’s street encampments.
As we walked to the Linkage Center, I noted how drug dealers had lined up neatly in a row outside, with several backpacks on hand to supply their customers. I asked why police didn’t just arrest the dealers. Jenny explained that many are here from Central America, and their illegal status provides them with an unusual form of protection: she showed me a video of San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin saying that “perhaps as many as half” of the city’s drug dealers come from Honduras and were forced into drug-running by the cartels, so arresting them is not an option, since they are victims themselves.
Between the Linkage Center and the dealers was an area occupied by “indentured customers,” who shuttled back and forth between the two—an image I won’t soon forget. I observed individuals standing on two feet but hunched over, with their limbs in unusual formations, a posture described as the “fentanyl fold.” The sight of a needle puncturing flesh makes me faint, so I had to look away frequently. It was easier to observe individuals smoking, snorting, or huffing from a multitude of contraptions. Disheveled people with visible track marks and bruises walked nervously in circles, scratching at their skin and open sores. Bodies lined the plaza, some naked from the waist down, some missing an arm or a leg, and most missing teeth.
A representative of the Tenderloin merchants and property owners association showed us around the commercial area and explained the hardships of local business owners. I asked him how many of the homeless in the area were from out of town. He estimated about 95 percent, mostly from the Midwest, where meth addiction is rampant. They made their way to San Francisco, where they are free to use without fear of incarceration.
It became apparent to me that San Francisco had all but replaced its police response and presence with “ambassadors”—privately contracted, unarmed social workers. We toured the neighborhood with one such ambassador, who effectively functioned as our security detail. We passed a small children’s park surrounded by a wrought-iron fence and secured by ambassadors on all sides.
Now lawmakers want to bring San Francisco’s growing squalor to the rest of the state. California Senate Bill 57, sponsored by Scott Wiener, a Democrat representing San Francisco, would remove the state prohibition on safe-consumption sites for pilot programs in San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles Counties. I was eager to return home and warn my own neighborhood of its future if we continue down this path.
Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images