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San Francisco's controversial Tenderloin Center closes its doors

Controversial Tenderloin Center closes its doors
Controversial Tenderloin Center closes its doors 02:46

SAN FRANCISCO -- In January, San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced a plan to fight crime and blight in the City's Tenderloin District. The cornerstone of her plan was a controversial new facility on Market Street at the U.N. Plaza that would offer help to drug-addicted residents. 

On Sunday, the center closed, leaving thousands of addicts with nowhere else to go.

Tenderloin Center
Tenderloin Center closes its doors in San Francisco. CBS

The purpose of the Tenderloin Center was pretty clear from the outset. In addition to offering referrals for social services, the facility was meant to give drug-addicted people a safer place to use where they could be monitored to prevent overdose.  

At the center's opening, the City's Behavioral Health Director Dr. Hillary Kunins seemed to think it was a pretty good idea.

"What we're doing here is very important," she said.  "We're creating a space and stopping people from dying."

But on Monday, Dr. Kunins offered only this as a reason for the center's closing: "The site was really always conceived of as temporary, knowing that we had an end point in mind."

"Yes, the Tenderloin Center was temporary. Everyone knew that going into it. However, I don't think anyone realized the amount of people that would be relying on the Tenderloin Center on a daily basis," said Gary McCoy, VP of Policy for an organization called Health Right 360, one of the advocacy groups partnering at the site.

The City's own figures show the center had more than 124,000 visits over the year, about 400 clients per day.

"And those were the people that we always had a challenge in connecting with and having conversations with," said McCoy.  "And with the Tenderloin Center, we had them voluntarily coming on a daily basis."

Health Right 360 is part of a street advocacy group called the Safer Inside Coalition, which offered a statement regarding the closure that read, "These people will continue to use the drugs, only it will be in the 'open air.'  With no guarantee of Narcan or other life-saving tools or monitoring, we absolutely guarantee there will be more deaths."

SF Department of Public Health said they learned a lot of valuable lessons from the experiment that can be used in future programs, including the need for smaller centers embedded throughout the neighborhoods. Health officials said they will continue to direct people to the myriad of social services in the community, and workers manned an information table outside the closed facility Monday. 

But those who work with drug-dependent people say most do not have the ability to navigate the social services network. At the Tenderloin Center, they didn't have to.

"The City absolutely has an obligation to continue that type of model, to do it in many locations," said McCoy.  "I think the City is also responsible at this point for every overdose death moving forward."

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