With financial help from UC Hastings — who last year sued the city over the homeless problem in the neighborhood — San Francisco is launching a new initiative aimed at taming the chaos and open-air drug market of the Tenderloin and Mid-Market.
What for decades has been a bit of a cluster where a blind eye was mostly turned from low-level drug transactions, the Tenderloin and Mid-Market have become more dangerous and chaotic during the pandemic, with fewer tourists and downtown workers on the street. Violent crime may have been down overall last year, but a few high-profile attacks — particularly against elderly Asian Americans — in recent months, as well as a massive overdose crisis have made law enforcement a priority for Mayor London Breed.
Enter the “Mid-Market Vibrancy and Safety Plan.”
“All of our residents and workers deserve to feel safe, and this area of the city continues to face a number of challenges that need to be addressed,” said Mayor London Breed in a statement. “With this plan, we’re focusing on both addressing the illegal activity that is unacceptable and will not be allowed to continue, while also building up our community presence so that the area is more welcoming, friendly and accessible to everyone who lives, works and visits the area.”
In an era when there are broad calls for defunding the police and deploying fewer police into non-emergency settings, the plan is guaranteed to garner pushback.
The two-pronged plan includes increased police presence, particularly on foot patrol, “to deter criminal activity,” as Breed says. And there will be community ambassadors “stationed on every block of the area from Powell Station (5th Street) to 8th Street on Market Street and adjacent areas just south of Market Street, UN Plaza, and the Tenderloin blocks bordered by Larkin Street and Eddy Street.”
The ambassadors will come from Urban Alchemy, the nonprofit that also contracts with the city to manage its Safe Sleeping Villages.
The police presence is expected to begin rolling out on Wednesday, May 19, with the ambassadors joining police on June 15.
Alluding to the increased sense of chaos in the area, SFPD Chief Bill Scott said in a statement, “San Francisco residents and businesses made enormous sacrifices over the past year to make our City’s COVID-19 response a nationally recognized success, and nowhere were those sacrifices greater than in our Tenderloin and Mid-Market neighborhoods.”
“Mayor Breed’s Mid-Market Vibrancy and Safety Plan is another bold step that makes good on our shared civic commitment to come back even stronger than before,” Scott added. “For all of us in the San Francisco Police Department, we’re grateful for this opportunity to showcase what community policing and 21st century police reform look like.”
The initiative is being funded with $5 million from the city and $3 million from UC Hastings, which settled its lawsuit last year after the city agreed to relocate the majority of those camped around the law school to hotel rooms or other shelters.
“This funding is a game-changer,” says Randy Shaw, Executive Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, in a statement. “It returns the Tenderloin to the path toward revitalization it was on pre-pandemic.”
And the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), which opened its Stand Theater across the street from UN Plaza on Market in recent years, praised Urban Alchemy’s work in the neighborhood.
“In 2019, A.C.T.’s Strand Theater was the first site to contract independently with Urban Alchemy for ambassadors to replace security guards at the theater,” said Eric Brizee, the theater’s operations and facilities manager, in a statement. “Their community-focused and non-confrontational intervention methodologies have proven very effective at making the Strand a more welcoming, safer site and will be critical in having audiences return to the Strand.”
In addition to the fentanyl crisis, which helped to kill 700 people who died of overdoses in San Francisco last year, homelessness and mental health issues appear to have spiraled during the pandemic as well. And nowhere has that been more center-stage than in the Tenderloin and along Mid-Market.
“The pandemic’s stifling impact on the positive life in our neighborhood has created a new, unacceptable paradigm for our city,” says Simon Bertrang, Executive Director of the Tenderloin Community Benefit District. “This [plan] is about giving our communities the calm and confidence they need to recover.”
What could remain a sticking point between the police department and the district attorney’s office, however, is the ongoing arrests of low-level drug dealers. Chief Scott has taken the approach that any amount of fentanyl is worth taking off the streets, but DA Chesa Boudin has said in speeches and reiterated in a recent interview that he’s told the cops to “bring me kilos, not crumbs.”
Boudin has been accused frequently in recent months of not being tough enough on serial offenders, particularly in the wake of several high-profile crimes — including the recent stabbing of two elderly Asian women on Market Street — involving suspects who allegedly were reoffending after being let out of jail or some other custodial program.
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