Drug overdose deaths spiked in San Francisco last year, totaling 259 in 2018. At the same time, drug-related arrests and citations in the Tenderloin and around mid-market decreased. Some residents say open-air drug dealing has gotten worse there. A new task force aims to change that.
On the corner of Ellis and Elleanworth in the Tenderloin, Fernando Pujals, the Director of Communications for the Tenderloin Community Benefit District, points out neighborhood institutions that serve kids and families.
“We have one daycare center a block that way, just to the west is a rec center where hundreds of kids will access every day,” Pujals says. “Two blocks to the south of us…”
Pujals says he thinks people tend to forget there are kids in the Tenderloin, but there are more than 3,000 children in the Tenderloin and South of Market, according to the San Francisco Planning Department. He says there has always been drug dealing in the area, but in the last five or so years, it feels like it’s intensified. And he fears it’s impacting the children.
“Kids are exposed to environmental trauma and environmental stress, based on what they see, that’s either part of or periphery to the open drug market,” Pujals says.
InBoeddeker Park, a playground and basketball court a few blocks away, I findPatrick, who asked to be identified only by his first name. The 24-year-old Tenderloin resident and sick of seeing drug dealers every day.
“I would prefer it to, somehow, someway, for it to just go away because you know with the drug-dealing there comes a lot of people that are high, you know,” Patrick says. “Then after that, there's this huge poop problem, you know. It feels like an obstacle course when you're walking through. So, to me, there has to be something done.”
Over in South of Market, at the corner of Seventh and Mission, I see a group of men openly selling illicit drugs. Baggies of white powder are swapped for cash. Behind them, I see a pile of needles.
Matt Haney is the supervisor for this district; so the using and dealing is on his doorstep — and the doorsteps of his constituents.
“This is an unacceptable and untenable position ... and there is very little that the city is doing that is serious about disrupting the status quo,” Haney says.
The residents I spoke to tend to agree on that. What people are less sure about, is the solution.
“Punishing someone just for drug dealing isn't the solution,” Patrick says. “It's trying to actually help the addict get off of it and trying to create no market for it so that drug dealers go away if there’s no market for it.”
Other neighborhood residents, like Santos Can, aren’t thinking about rehabilitation. They just want the streets to feel safer for their kids.
“I need there is more security for the police take care for you know, the street, mostly for the kids,” Can says.
“A lot of folks who are selling are also using, a lot of folks who are selling are supporting families,” says Ben Lintschinger, the Advocacy Program Manager at the Glide Foundation, a Tenderloin-based church and non-profit. “And their issues are not issues that are best solved by the fact that they’re selling, but it seems like the only option they have.”
Lintschinger doesn’t think throwing more police at the problem is the answer. Pujals agrees: he thinks arrests sometimes only seem to make his neighborhood safer.
“There are sort of short-lived moments ... people would describe them as calm after major arrests,” Pujals says. “We also see other disruptions, displacement. We see drug supply that sort of changes and then leads to more overdose on the street. We see more chaotic behavior and more violence. Sometimes after those incidents, people created a turf vacuum, sort of a power vacuum.”
Enter Supervisor Haney. He’s calling for a new approach.
“Let's actually try some things. Let's be creative. Let's not just accept that your only option is to go back out there and deal,” Haney says.
Supervisor Haney doesn’t have the answer, but he thinks it could be unlocked by bringing people with different viewpoints together, people like Lintschinger, Pujals, and Can.
“People in the Tenderloin and South of Market have experiences on all sides of this,” Haney says. “We have a lot of people in our community who are in recovery, have recovered. Many who may have been involved with dealing drugs at some level themselves. And so I think we’re in a very good position to actually come up with some solutions.”
His proposal, the Street-Level Drug Dealing Task Force, was signed into law in October. On the one hand, it seems like standard-issue: Twelve members will study the problem. They’ll make quarterly reports to the Board of Supervisors and eventually, they’ll make policy recommendations. What’s unique about Haney’s approach is that, by law, it requires a mix of members with a diversity of experiences and perspectives, including dealers, residents, and law enforcement.
Ben Lintschinger is a big fan of Haney’s plan.
“I think what we should be doing is looking at the issue as the harms related to open-air drug sales,” Lintschinger says. “That’s what this legislation talks about and what it’s trying to do by including people from all walks of life.”
Fernando Pujals is hopeful, too.
“What I really appreciate that the Supervisor’s office has done is make space on that task force for community members and for the community to have a say,” Pujals says.
So, what will twelve different people studying and talking about drug dealing really do to change it? That remains to be seen. The task force is expected to begin meeting in January.