San Francisco Chronicle, June 6, 2020
By Heather Knight
Ten floors above the crowded, dirty, frightening Tenderloin, Curtis Bradford can only watch. And listen.
The community organizer for the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp. wishes he could be down on the streets, helping people get tested for the coronavirus, passing out food to his increasingly desperate neighbors, and walking his little black dog, Maggie.
But Bradford is HIV-positive, and his doctor has warned him not to walk the streets of the Tenderloin for any reason. It’s not safe for him. Or anybody really.
And so like some pathetic, modern-day twist on the Rapunzel fairy tale, Bradford is approaching 100 days trapped in his tiny studio atop the Alexander Residence, a supportive housing building on Eddy Street for seniors and people with HIV. He even gave Maggie to a friend on Nob Hill because, in that neighborhood, it’s safe to walk a dog.
Unlike that old Brothers Grimm story, nobody is coming to rescue Bradford — or the Tenderloin itself. Since Mayor London Breed announced her plan to improve the Tenderloin one month ago, the long-neglected neighborhood has only sunk deeper into misery.
There are nearly 150 more homeless tents in the neighborhood’s 49 blocks since she announced her plan, bringing the total to 416 on Friday morning. Drug dealing continues unabated. No additional streets have closed to through traffic to promote exercise and social distancing. There doesn’t even seem to be the promised paint on the sidewalks marking 6 feet of space between tents.
Even people like Bradford who’ve spent decades in the notoriously edgy neighborhood are shocked by how far it’s sunk. The city’s thinning of homeless shelters to create social distance sent about 1,000 people back to the streets, and many of them headed for the Tenderloin. Bradford and other residents said people have grown so desperate, they’re snatching bags of food from moms walking home from the corner store and getting into screaming matches over items as small as blankets. Supervisor Matt Haney, a young, tall man, said he feels unsafe walking in his own neighborhood at night for the first time.
It’s easy for San Franciscans mostly stuck at home in wealthier neighborhoods and no longer heading downtown for work or fun to put the long-troubled area out of their minds. But those living and working in the Tenderloin don’t have that luxury.
“It’s devastating. It’s heartbreaking. It’s unreal,” said Bradford, 55. “I don’t think anybody can wrap their brain around a neighborhood in crisis like the Tenderloin right now.”
On a recent afternoon, a line of people stretched down Hyde Street near Golden Gate Avenue. It looked like a soup kitchen line, but the offerings weren’t canned corn or rice. They were drugs. An unconscious man sprawled facedown on the sidewalk at the corner of Jones and Ellis streets while another man knelt down to rifle through his pockets. The sidewalks were dotted with feces, needles and piles of cardboard.
On Larkin Street, metal barricades sat near a long wall, apparently in an attempt to restrict camping there. It wasn’t working. In the 2- or 3-foot gap between the metal and the wall sat a long makeshift shantytown with a web of tarps, chairs and cardboard. It wasn’t clear whether anybody was inside until a rabbit on a leash emerged, and a hand yanked the creature back.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
On May 4, residents, business owners and UC Hastings Law School sued the city, saying in court documents, “San Francisco should be prohibited from abandoning a single neighborhood in an apparent effort to spare other neighborhoods the burdens that confront the city.”
Two days later, Breed responded with a 32-page plan to help the Tenderloin, saying, “We are set to be as aggressive as we can be.” The plan includes moving homeless people into safe sleeping sites, enforcing social distancing, sending 50 ambassadors onto the sidewalks to help homeless people space their tents and access services, adding more Pit Stop toilets and water fountains, and cracking down on drug dealing.
One month later, there are safe sleeping sites, 18 ambassadors roaming the neighborhood, and more toilets and water fountains, and police are arresting drug dealers again after pausing at the pandemic’s start to protect themselves from the virus. But life in the neighborhood has only gotten worse.
When Breed premiered her plan, there were 268 tents in the Tenderloin, a shocking 285% explosion since January. The number has continued to soar, hovering above 400 every day since May 11 and reaching a shocking high of 448 on May 28.
A transportation planner from the airport named Daniel Wu — whose LinkedIn profile contains nothing about homelessness — was named project manager for the plan. I asked to interview him but was told he was unavailable. Haney said he has never met him and that Wu is now being transferred back to the airport. It’s unclear who will become the plan’s new manager.
Requests to interview Breed, Police Chief Bill Scott, Municipal Transportation Agency Director Jeffrey Tumlin and Jeff Kositsky, head of the Healthy Streets Operations Center, were all ignored or declined. Few people seem to want to talk about the current state of the Tenderloin — perhaps because there’s nothing good to say.
Breed did release a statement through a spokesman: “The conditions in the Tenderloin are unacceptable, and it’s clear to anyone who walks through the neighborhood that serious changes need to be made.”
The mayor deserves praise for her quick, decisive handling of the pandemic citywide, but that makes the failure in the Tenderloin even more stark.
Even though it’s not apparent, the city really is trying, said Mary Ellen Carroll, executive director of the Department of Emergency Management.
“We’re not seeing it yet, but that is our goal,” she said of lasting change in the neighborhood.
Some of the game plan has gone into effect — including establishing safe sleeping sites for homeless people where their tents can be safely spaced out. One exists adjacent to the Asian Art Museum on Fulton Street, though that is slated to close by June 30 and its residents moved into hotels or other safe sleeping sites. Forty tents fill the site at Haight and Stanyan streets, and 21 people are sleeping in 16 tents at 180 Jones St. A new site for a few dozen tents will open Monday at Everett Middle School on Church Street.
Abigail Stewart-Kahn, director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said the pandemic has been a calamity for homeless people. It’s now impossible to get a shelter bed from the street because shelters are thinned to create social distance. She said many more people couch-surfing with older relatives headed back to the streets to protect their family from the virus.
And meanwhile, one of the city’s main answers to the crisis, Homeward Bound, has ground to a halt, she said. That program pays for homeless people to go home to willing friends or family and helped about 60 people a month leave the city before the pandemic. But Greyhound bus lines have dwindled, and hardly anybody can leave.
“It feels like we all got hit by a tornado, and we did. It’s a COVID tornado,” Stewart-Kahn said. “It’s that level of disaster for homeless people.”
Haney and other supervisors keep pressing for the city to move more homeless people into hotels rooms, but that’s been slow going. The city currently has 2,102 hotel rooms available, Carroll said, and 1,283 are being used. Most of the people in hotels came from shelters, single-room-occupancy hotel rooms or the streets, including 220 moved from Tenderloin sidewalks.
But Haney said these hotel placements need to happen much faster because nothing else is working. And he’s irate the mayor’s plan has been so ineffective one month in.
“It’s one thing to leave the community behind, but it’s another to pretend you have a plan,” Haney said. “It was a fantasy from the beginning.”
Another problem is the city’s continued refusal to do much about its drug crisis. Rachel Marshall, a spokeswoman for District Attorney Chesa Boudin, said 20% of recent felony cases that make their way to the office have been for drug sales. She said the pandemic’s slowing of the courts, coupled with new zero bail policies, mean the D.A. has not been arraigning people for drug sales or imposing stay-away orders from the areas in which they were caught selling until about month after their arrest. That means they’ve returned to the streets with no punishment at all for a month.
“We are working to advance some of those cases so we can obtain stay-away orders sooner,” she said.
Like always, it’s clear the city has one set of rules for the Tenderloin and another set for everywhere else. For example, the city initially said it would stop sweeping tent encampments citywide in accordance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that say homeless people should shelter-in-place in tents.
But that’s not entirely true. The city recently dismantled a tent encampment plagued with drug dealing and violence next to the Safeway in the Marina. And it dismantled a similar encampment in the Haight several days ago. Lt. Bill Toomey of Park Station sent an email to Haight neighbors reading, “If you see someone trying to retake the area, please call. THIS IS A PRIORITY.”
There’s no such priority in the Tenderloin.
Amanda Michael, the owner of a cafe called Jane on Larkin Street, has another cafe on Fillmore Street. The Larkin cafe abuts Cedar alley, which is filled with dealers going tent to tent like the Avon lady. Michael said people in “various states of sobriety” have thrown coffee at her, pushed her and swiped her tip jar. If she calls the police on Larkin Street, they take two or three hours to respond, she said.
“If I call from Fillmore, it’s a matter of minutes,” Michael said.
Another example is the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Slow Streets Program to shut streets to through traffic to give people more space to get exercise and fresh air while social distancing. Started in April, these popular street closures now dot the Sunset, Richmond, Mission, Haight, Glen Park and other neighborhoods.
Except, naturally, the Tenderloin, which desperately needs more space for people to walk safely. Erica Kato, a spokeswoman for Muni, said the agency has placed “No Parking” signs along several blocks in the Tenderloin to give people room to walk. It’s unclear why Safe Streets hasn’t begun in the Tenderloin where residents, advocates and Haney have been demanding street closures since the start of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Bradford is holed up in his tiny studio with a couch he uses as a bed, photos of his beloved dog, Maggie, he can no longer see and a sign above the kitchen door reading, “Rise! Resist! Unite!” He said he’s lucky he can keep working as a community organizer from home and afford to have his groceries delivered. But trying to organize over his computer is difficult.
“Oh God, I hate it,” he said. “The thing I loved about my job was I got to be out in the community every day.”
He has no idea when his captivity will end and when he can rejoin the neighborhood he loves. And he has no idea why a group of seemingly smart, competent city officials can’t improve life on the streets down below like they seem capable of doing in other neighborhoods.
“There’s just no rational explanation,” he said, burying his head in his hands as he cried. “I just don’t understand why they won’t help us.”