© 2024 KALW 91.7 FM Bay Area
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

THE INTERSECTION: How drugs shape life in the Tenderloin

Illustration by David Boyer.

THE INTERSECTION looks at change in the Bay Area through physical intersections and street corners — where different cultures, desires and histories meet every day.

Season one focuses on Golden Gate Avenue and Leavenworth Street in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood that some feel is changing, while others feel it’s getting worse. What you’ll hear this is season is what producer David Boyer found while spending the better part a year getting to know the people who live and work nearby. This is episode four  listen to more.

There are plenty of people who don’t want to talk about drug use and dealing in the Tenderloin. That’s because the neighborhood has a reputation for being home solely to homeless addicts. In fact, it is filled with families, seniors, new immigrants.

Hard-core dealing may not be the norm on many blocks of the neighborhood. But at the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Leavenworth Street, the realities of the open-air drug market are hard to avoid. And that’s the focus of this installment of  THE INTERSECTION.

“This is our pills block,” explains Del Seymour. He lived here for a long time. Now, he’s one of the community’s historians and gives daily walking tours of the area. “Every block is a different drug.”

While that might make one feel unsafe, Del says it’s actually the opposite. “There’s a guy on every block. His whole job is to make sure nothing like that happens. That’s like the Safeway security guard. He’s [there] to make sure you can walk through here with that microphone and nobody will bother you. ‘Cause if someone snatches that microphone you’re going to call the police and shut the block down. It’s going to cost him a whole much more than that microphone. In an hour they’ll lose four or five thousand dollars.”

But, according to Captain Jason Cherniss, the former captain of the Tenderloin Police Station, that’s cold comfort for the people living here. “When we walk outside and we see this kind of blatant criminal activity that makes us feel unsafe in our community.”

Kim Jackson, who works at UNITE HERE, the hospitality union, thinks the amount of negative activity has increased in the last year. And she’s worked here for more than 30 years. “You know, there's always been homeless people here, a certain amount of drug dealing, a certain amount of violence. But nothing like it is right now.”

As the situation has gotten worse at Golden Gate & Leavenworth, Kim has been asked by her union to try to improve street safety. “My members are afraid. They don't want to come to a union hall when people are trying to sell them Oxycontin. They have to feel safe coming to their union hall.” She points out that there are two preschools and a middle school within a half a block of the intersection. “And the children deserve to feel safe walking down the street.”

Dr. Joseph Pace worries how the dealing impacts his clients. He’s the director of primary care homeless services for the San Francisco Department of Public Health and Medical Director at Tom Waddell Urban Health Clinic. “There’s a lot of pretty open drug dealing right in front of the clinic here at Golden Gate and Leavenworth,” he explains. “A lot of our patients will discuss how challenging it is for them to get to see us here and how they feel very vulnerable…when they're being approached either to sell their medications, or to trade medications for other substances. And especially for people who are trying to change towards a clean and sober living. This can be really triggering for them.”

That’s the case for Roxy, who was addicted to heroin for 5 years. “I staved off heroin by using pills,” she says. “Personally, being here is a trigger a lot of times. Because it’s right close to Pill Hill.” But this day was a good day for her. “I feel proud because I was able to walk on Leavenworth by myself and not pick up any drugs.”   

It’s especially frustrating for Nancy Nielsen, the Deputy Director for Lutheran Social Services. She has been a social worker since the 1970s. And many of the clients at Lutheran Social Services have struggled with addiction issues. She looks out the window overlooking the corner and notes, “For every day that we're trying to help people stabilize their lives and get themselves to a point where they can function. You 've got another whole group of people out there selling the drugs that got so many of them into problems in the first place.”

What’s interesting about Nancy, Kim and Jospeh is that they do not demonize the drug dealers. They see the dealing on the corner is a means of survival and an indication of society’s failure.

“It’s really easy to vilify people in the drug trade and say they're exploiting people and they're part of the problem,” notes Joseph.  “And yet, I know their choices in life are constrained. And in many ways, they're here because  this is the best set of options that they could actually come up with, given many things that have happened to them in their lives.”   

At first the dealers on the corner refused to be interviewed and were convinced that the cops were connected to the project. But after being introduced by some locals, they opened up and shared their stories and frustrations.

“It’s a struggle out here,” says a man who goes by The Macnifficent. “Just cause I ain’t paying no taxes don’t mean that they have to put us in jail. We not robbing nobody. Knocking nobody upside their goddamned head. All we trying to do is just live and get by, man.”

It’s also a catch-22. Because once you’ve been to jail, it is harder to get a job. So the drug trade becomes a means of survival. And that’s why Carla’s out here. “When you have a record and you go try to get a job. And you be honest on the application. And you tell them, ‘Yes I have a record.’ They never call you back. But if you say, “No, I don’t have a record.” Then they run the background and they … call and say ‘Well, you lied.’ So I do what I’ve got to do to take care of my kids. By all means necessary.”

Carla, and most of the folks dealing on the corner, live in Oakland. Like a lot of 9-to-5ers, they commute in on BART every morning.

“Can't fault them for their work ethic,” notes Kim from the union. “There here at 7:30 in the morning and they leave at 6:30 at night. Just like me.”

Keyon, who’s 20 years old, lives in West Oakland. He’s also a college student. “I go to Merritt College Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and Friday. I’m not there today. I’m obviously missing school. Which, you know, I’m not supposed to do,” he explains. “I’m taking criminal justice up there... Because I have no criminal record. And I’m trying to be a juvenile probation officer.”

Nancy from Lutheran Social Services sees their potential. “These are young smart entrepreneurs,” she notes. “It would be nice if we could direct them in another place.”

Joseph from the clinic agrees. “I would love to see a situation where we could engage [them],” he says. “And figure out how we can meet the needs that are not being met that compel them to be living this life.”  

What of the dealers seem to want is a good job—with benefits. “If I was offered a job opportunity I would take it,” notes one dealer who preferred not to use her name. “Why not? And it’s paying more than working outside. Why not take it?”

In the meantime, what are the police and the community to do with the very real consequences of the dealing on the their doorsteps? The answer will surprise you. To hear how they’ve responded, click on the audio link at the top.




THE INTERSECTION is a new podcast produced by David Boyer and KALW. It was made possible with a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission and support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the NEH.

Subscribe to the podcast to hear the entire season and future episodes from this and other intersections around the Bay Area.


Crosscurrents The Intersection