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Latest effort to crack down on drug markets could affect some San Francisco stores

Latest approach to Tenderloin crime would set restrictions on businesses
Latest approach to Tenderloin crime would set restrictions on businesses 02:49

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco Mayor London Breed is cracking down on nighttime drug markets in the Tenderloin. The latest approach will affect stores that are open late, and opinions on the approach are split.

The Tenderloin has made significant gains in recent months with the help of city contractors like Urban Alchemy and community ambassadors. But after dark, the neighborhood that residents, like Del Seymour, know and love turns into a recognizable nightmare.

"I want my neighborhood back," Del Seymour said. "I'm tired of seeing this.

The proposed legislation would focus on the area between O'Farrell and McAllister and from Polk to Jones. Jamari Hilliard said those areas near Civic Center Plaza are particularly bad.

"Once you're on these streets, this is where you see the thick of everything," Hilliard said. "At night it's (the) Wild West, it's crazy. Everyone is everywhere, selling something, buying something. It's intense."

At night, there's usually a big crowd because it's one of the few stores that stays open after midnight.

"Oh yeah, I've seen that market," Nestor Vasquez, a private security guard who works nearby, said. "It's usually open, but it's so full with people."

Vasquez said, that despite San Francisco police and other private security guards, they still can't control it.

"Hundreds of hundreds of people that you can't even walk," Vasquez said. "The plaza is filled. SFPD and guards, we try to do what we can."

He said he would see many of the same people selling and dealing drugs also go inside Plaza Snacks and Deli. The business just opened six months ago and has become very popular because of its 24-hour availability.

The mayor's office said the late-night stores may be unintentionally contributing to the drug markets. So, the city is trying a new tactic to crack down on open-air drug markets. Breed announced a plan to ban stores in the area from selling prepackaged food or tobacco products between midnight and 5 a.m.

"The drug markets happening at night in this neighborhood are unacceptable and must be met with increased law enforcement and new strategies," she said in a statement. "We are coordinating these efforts across agencies and with community so that we can make deep and lasting changes in this neighborhood."

"They're just trying to blame businesses for being open all night, but I don't think that's the issue," said one of the owners of Plaza Snacks and Deli, responding to the Mayor's legislation. "Homelessness has been going on in San Francisco for more than 10 to 15 years."

The owner didn't want to give his name, but he said most people who come into the store late at night are just buying cereal and milk. He said they need to stay open at all hours if they want to pay their bills.

"Rent in San Francisco is so high owners cannot afford to pay rent and employees if they shut down early, so they won't be able to make it," he said.

A few doors down, Jamal Ali owns a similar store. He said they now always close by 10 p.m. — sometimes earlier if they feel unsafe.

"Things changed dramatically where it became a little more dangerous," Ali said.

Ali would support the Mayor's legislation if it becomes law.

"If it makes a difference with keeping the business safer, I'm with it," he said.

Even those experiencing homelessness said they feel unsafe.

"It's a pretty rough crowd," Tamara Ring said, a woman experiencing homelessness who sells shoes on the street. "I do feel unsafe. I'm not your average-looking person around here, and I do feel I'm treated differently and unsafe here."

But Hilliard said he doesn't think any law will make a difference.

"You can do any legislation you want," he said. "These people are going to do whatever they want to do; you can't stop that. People with addiction, you can't break that by just making a rule. They're just going to go down there to another store. You're not fixing the problem. You're just masking it."

The mayor's office said the goal of this initiative is to improve the health and wellbeing of the people who live in The Tenderloin, not to hurt small business owners.

The legislation is part of Mayor Breed's Drug Market Agency Coordination Center effort, a multi-agency strategy to disrupt and dismantle open-air drug markets. The effort is led by law enforcement. 

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