SAN FRANCISCO -- The Board of Supervisors approved an emergency order to tackle the opioid epidemic in San Francisco’s troubled Tenderloin neighborhood, despite reservations by some that the declaration will be used by the mayor to criminalize people who are homeless, addicted to drugs or both.
The vote shortly after midnight on Friday was 8-2, following a marathon 10 hours of debate and public comment. The public health emergency declaration authorizes the Department of Emergency Management to re-allocate city staff and bypass contracting and permitting regulations to set up a new temporary center where people can access expanded drug treatment and counseling.
Advocates for the homeless and substance users urged supervisors to reject the emergency order because Mayor London Breed has also pledged to flood the district with police to halt crime, which some residents want. The mayor also said some drug users may wind up in jail unless they accept services, although drug possession is a misdemeanor crime and rarely enforced.
The board ultimately approved the declaration, calling the abundance of cheap fentanyl a crisis. More people in San Francisco died of overdose last year than of COVID-19.
“I know that this is an incredibly painful, traumatic and emotional conversation,” said Matt Haney, the supervisor who represents the neighborhood, before the vote. He said he hopes the city will bring all of its “innovation, unyielding compassion and relentless determination” to confront the crisis.
Several supervisors raised objections, although only Board President Shamann Walton and Dean Preston voted no. They decried the lack of details and dearth of available treatment beds, and said that over-policing would victimize African Americans and the homeless.
Walton, the only African American person on the board, said he wished more attention would be paid to homicides in his district, which includes the traditionally Black neighborhoods of Bayview and Hunters Point.
The Tenderloin includes museums, the main public library and government offices, including City Hall. But it’s also teeming with people who are homeless or marginally housed, a high concentration of drug dealers and people consuming drugs in broad view.
The order itself does not call for increased police and police Chief Bill Scott assured supervisors that officers have no intention of locking up people just because they are addicted to drugs. Still, he said police can’t simply ignore what’s happening in a neighborhood where children are scared to go outside and people are injecting poisonous drugs.
“We’re out there to help,” Scott said. “We’re not out there to turn a blind eye to people killing themselves on the street.”
In announcing the emergency declaration last week, the mayor said it was time to be “less tolerant of all the bull—- that has destroyed our city.” On social media this week, she said people openly using drugs will be given treatment and other service options.
“But if they refuse, we’re not going to allow them to continue using on the street,” she said on social media this week. “The families in the neighborhood deserve better.”
Breed has committed to opening a supervised drug consumption site as well as a drug sobering center, and said the emergency management department will lead the response much like it coordinated efforts to address the pandemic. The department will, in part, streamline emergency medical calls, disrupt drug dealing and use, and make sure streets stay clean.
Deaths attributable to overdoses have increased more than 200% in San Francisco since 2018, and last year, more than 700 people died from drug overdoses in the city, more than the number who died from COVID-19, according to the proclamation.
Nearly 600 people have died of a drug overdose this year, through November, with nearly half of the deaths occurring in the Tenderloin and in the neighboring South of Market district, says the proclamation. These areas make up 7% of San Francisco’s population.
Politically liberal cities across the U.S. are grappling with crime in the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd, when their elected leaders pledged ways to reduce friction between police and vulnerable communities of color, particularly African Americans such as Floyd.
San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin joined the city’s public defender earlier this week to denounce the mayor’s plan, saying that jailing people struggling with addiction, mental health issues and homelessness would not work. They want her to use the money on adding more treatment beds, shelters, job training and other social services.
“What we currently see in the Tenderloin didn’t happen overnight and stems from years of massive disinvestment and displacement,” said Jeannette Zanipatin, California director at the Drug Policy Alliance.
The emergency order will last 90 days.