Locals sometimes call San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood “Hamsterdam.” The name comes from the third season of HBO’s The Wire, in which a Baltimore police commander unilaterally designates an area of his district where his officers would turn a blind eye to the selling and using of drugs. The fictional depiction of Hamsterdam is horrifying—“a village of pain,” one character calls it. For Tenderloin residents, that portrayal is a reality. And now it’s not just happening on the streets: San Francisco is operating a rogue and unlawful drug-consumption site. In January 2021, the Third Circuit ruled that such supervised consumption rooms are illegal under federal law, as per the Controlled Substances Act.
The site, called the Linkage Center, opened on January 18. It’s a key element of Mayor London Breed’s emergency plan to clean up the Tenderloin. City officials billed it as a one-stop site for addicts, many of them homeless, to obtain necessary assistance without having to pass through a bureaucratic thicket. Addicts receive food, water, and hygiene services, and workers also connect them to housing options and essential health services, including detox and substance-abuse treatment.
At first intrigued and even excited by the proposal, I visited the center the day of its launch. Most of the workers, called practitioners, are from Urban Alchemy, an organization that employs formerly incarcerated people. One graciously showed me around. This is where people eat and where they play games, he said. Here’s where they can rest. And then, “here is where people can use.”
Surprised, I asked what he meant. He explained that the center has a drug-consumption site. Anyone could come in and use any substance they want, including methamphetamine, crack, heroin, or fentanyl. Whether they inject or smoke, though, they have to do it a few feet away from the dining and gaming tables. I asked if there is a nurse or medical professional on site. No, he said, but some people are trained in the use of Narcan in case they take too much and overdose. One guest had already overdosed on site, he said, and had to be taken away. Where that person went next, he didn’t specify.
I tried not to reveal my shock. Though the city has essentially given carte blanche to people buying, selling, and using in public right outside the Linkage Center, there is currently no legislation authorizing the opening of a safe-consumption site. One lawmaker recently proposed such a bill—but why wait for a formal vote that might reject the idea? Just open a drug-consumption site and hope that no one notices or cares.
Perhaps the practitioner was wrong about the space being a drug-consumption site. It’s certainly possible he’s misinformed. After all, the Linkage Center was sparsely populated on the day it opened, and I didn’t see anybody in the area set aside for drug use. So I decided to return on January 20, this time with San Fransicko author Michael Shellenberger, journalist Leighton Woodhouse, and a few community members. On this occasion, however, I didn’t get in. Deborah Borne, from the Department of Public Health, stopped us at the door. She explained they were not giving tours to the general public; only those who live in the Tenderloin may enter. This was peculiar, because the center is designed to serve homeless people who don’t have a fixed address. It would be impossible to determine who lives in the neighborhood, leaving us to surmise that staff profile guests based on their appearance.
Then came the duplicity. Depending on whom we asked, drugs both were and were not allowed to be consumed on the premises. Eventually a public-relations team emerged to deny that they were operating a consumption site, though just moments before another person said the opposite.
Shellenberger and Woodhouse, who arrived before I did, were able to enter the facility before the gatekeepers decided to stop allowing tours. Both witnessed people using illicit narcotics, as well as people who were passed out, and then wrote about the experience.
Judging from what Shellenberger, Woodhouse, and I saw, the site appears to be breaking state and federal law. If Mayor Breed signed off on the decision to establish a drug-consumption site, she should face an official investigation. If she did not know, she needs to investigate those who made the decision.
It also seems clear that the Linkage Center will not be a place where sick and desperate people will get better; instead, the site will deepen people’s addictions.
What is happening inside the Linkage Center mirrors what is happening outside. The facility is located near Civic Center Plaza, where hundreds of dealers and users congregate night and day. Throngs of addicts stand around in a daze, yell incoherently, or slump themselves over on the ground. They use drugs out in the open, jabbing needles into appendages, puffing on pipes, and inhaling from burning foil. Across the street stands a luxury condo building with units for sale and empty office buildings. Venues such as the Orpheum and the American Conservatory Theater are just steps away. This should be a beautiful, safe space for everybody, but it’s not—for anybody.