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San Francisco steps up emergency effort to bring Tenderloin back from brink

San Francisco steps up emergency effort to bring Tenderloin back from brink
San Francisco steps up emergency effort to bring Tenderloin back from brink 06:06

SAN FRANCISCO -- For decades, San Francisco's Tenderloin District has been at the very center of the city's challenges and that has only become more visible in recent years. 

Since 2021, San Francisco has been mobilizing an emergency effort to save the neighborhood and bring relief to the many people who call it home. The drug crisis and the associated human despair have drawn attention from around the world, and it ultimately drew this response from the city's mayor.

"It comes to an end," Mayor London Breed said 16 months ago, "when we take the steps to be more aggressive with law enforcement. More aggressive with the changes in our policies, and less tolerant of all the bull---t that has destroyed our city."

ALSO READ: SF's cleanup of Tenderloin District faced with steep challenges

It was December 2021 when Breed announced the emergency intervention. There would be a linkage center to connect people to services. There would be increased law enforcement, and an all-out push to clear streets of trash and unsanitary conditions. Just the announcement alone put a new focus on the neighborhood, prompting everyone to ask what it might actually take to bring significant change.

So what is different? What's working, and what's not? KPIX will be running a series of reports on the Tenderloin, and the effort to turn the neighborhood around.

"It's almost every day," said Jorge Alvarado, sweeping his sidewalk in the morning. "Every single day they have a mess over here."

For the people who live and work in the Tenderloin every day comes with trying to tackle, or just navigate, the immense challenges facing this neighborhood. And for some, it will continue to be a fight for survival more than a year after Breed declared a state of emergency. Trying to measure what has changed since then is not easy. There was initially a very aggressive push for sidewalk cleaning.

"Having a clear path to be able to see a couple of blocks down is a blessing,"  Alex Alvarado said at the start of the effort.

One year later:

"If we didn't clean here," Alvarado said of the returned trash troubles. "This place would be a complete disaster."

But tackling all of the trash on the sidewalk was only one challenge.

"Now, what are they gonna do with all the people that are here? I'm not sure," one neighbor said in 2022.

One year later, pick the right corner and little has changed. 

"How many months are they always calling?" Alvarado asked. "You see the place over there, almost no place to survive for the people, right?

The Tenderloin Center, controversial when it opened, closed to controversy in December. The effort to provide help now continues, block by block. 

"He gets walked home by outreach," said Mark Mazza with the city's Department of Emergency Management, helping someone on the street. "He's somewhere warm now the streets are clean and people can pass through. Nobody's walking through the street."

But just as the city's approach changes, so do the conditions on the street.

"There's more people out here now," said resident JJ Smith. "More of the people are dealing drugs, and using the drugs."

Overdoses continue, at a slightly elevated rate through the first two months of this year. And as for enforcement of drug laws:

"We need to be more aggressive with law enforcement,"  Breed said when she announced the emergency.

That pledge has materialized over the past couple of months as police have increased arrests with a new undercover unit.

"The 300 block of Hyde has been one of our biggest challenges," said Assistant Police Chief David Lazar. "Right now, it hasn't looked this good in a long time."

"All of our alternatives to policing have had a significant impact on helping to get people into treatment, helping to get them to the clinic, our street medicine team, our homeless outreach team, our crisis response team," Breed told KPIX. "They are on the ground every single day helping people in crisis, but our officers need to make arrests at the end of the day for those who are breaking the law."

"We're not gonna have any more luck arresting our way out of that crisis by arresting street-level dealers than any prior administration of that or that this country has had," countered Supervisor Dean Preston, whose District 5 now covers a portion of the Tenderloin.

The expanded policing, and expanded cost of policing, has some drawn pushback. And there has always been frustration that efforts to contain drug dealing, law enforcement or otherwise, only moves the problem around. 

"So they move them block-to-block," observed resident Tony Kushmaul. "Or they move them around the block."

So the Tenderloin continues to shift and change, just like the efforts to take control of the problems here, as residents wait and hope for progress. 

"So I think we need to fix this matter in the Tenderloin," Alvarado said. "That's all I can say."

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