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Tenderloin plaintiffs suing city say pandemic isn't the real problem

During the COVID-19 pandemic, conditions on the streets of the Tenderloin have gone from bad to worse.

Sidewalks crowded with tents, streets covered with trash and feces, and open-air drug dealing make it nearly impossible for neighborhood residents to simply walk down the street, much less at a social distance.

On Monday, Tenderloin residents, business owners, and neighborhood advocates joined the UC Hastings College of Law in filing a complaint in federal court against the City and County of San Francisco.

The group says that issues of street cleanliness, open-air drug dealing and homelessness were already going unaddressed prior to the pandemic, and they refuse to return to the "old normal" once it's over.

The complaint doesn't seek any financial damages from the city, only swift action to clean sidewalks and increase housing options for those who live on the streets.

If it's heard by a federal court, it could force a complete change in the way the city deals with the Tenderloin — even after the crisis subsides.

Drug dealers crowd the street corners around the Tenderloin's growing encampments, making social distancing impossible for residents.

The city has proposed some immediate solutions related to the pandemic crisis, like more bathrooms, hand-washing stations, and hotel-room placements for particularly vulnerable unhoused people.

But the plaintiffs' true ask is for the court “to enforce existing state and federal laws in the same manner as those laws are enforced in other neighborhoods of San Francisco,” said Deborah Mallgrave, a partner at Greenberg Gross LLP, who is representing UC Hastings.

"[The lawsuit] seeks ultimately not to assign blame, but to obtain legally obligatory solutions ... to create and maintain an environment that is fair to all of the Tenderloin’s residents, the housed and the unhoused," Mallgrave said. 

A large new encampment on Fulton Street, in front of City Hall, is enclosed by barricades.

District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the neighborhood, said UC Hastings and the other plaintiffs did not contact him prior to filing the suit.

But he noted that many of the issues mentioned in the complaint are ones he's already tried to address through legislation and agitation.

Just over a year ago, Haney held a rally in Boeddeker Park and set out a 10-point plan for cleaner, safer streets in the Tenderloin. He's attained many of those goals, including regular street power-washing and the roll-out of tamper-proof Bigbelly trash cans

Since Mayor London Breed declared the city’s state of emergency on February 25, Haney says he has introduced new emergency legislation on nearly every issue mentioned in the lawsuit. Many of those resolutions have been adopted.

“We want hotel rooms, bathrooms, water, [personal protective equipment], field testing, closed streets, safe camping areas, and an effective response to the drug situation," he said. 

Tenderloin residents rally for clean streets with Supervisor Matt Haney (center) in April 2019. | Photo: TLCBD

Nonetheless, conditions in the Tenderloin have continued to deteriorate.

The nightly tent count across the neighborhood has more than tripled during the pandemic, and new large encampments continue to emerge in Tenderloin alleys and on the Fulton Street mall near the Asian Art Museum.

Yesterday, the Examiner reported that Breed received a letter from the ACLU-backed Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, threatening additional legal action against her and the city for failure to place the unhoused population in up to 7,000 city-leased hotel rooms. Legislation to that effect was unanimously passed by the Board of Supervisors on April 15.

Tent and makeshift encampment count in the Tenderloin, December 10, 2019 - April 28, 2020 | Source: UC Hastings College of the Law et al vs. The City and County of San Francisco Complaint filed May 4, 2020

The crowded sidewalks and growing encampments are also impacting small businesses in the neighborhood.

Already struggling to turn a profit during the shelter-in-place order, many are now also dealing with nightly break-ins and robbery attempts.

The Tenderloin Merchants Association (TMA), which is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, was formed last year to address the safety and cleanliness issues small-business owners in the neighborhood are facing. Those are worsening under the pandemic, executive director Rene Colorado said.

On April 30, Colorado dropped by Sweet Glory, a soon-to-open restaurant at 721 Larkin St. for which the TMA is doing project management. 

“Two people were doing drugs inside when I found them,” Colorado said. “I asked them to please leave, and then called the police.”

While there was nothing of value in the still-unfinished restaurant to steal, Colorado discovered that the pair had torn out all of the light switches and trashed the restroom, breaking both the toilet and sink. 

Sweet Glory, which is set to open in the ground-floor space of 719 Larkin St., was broken into last week.

Haney notes that the Tenderloin community has long been stepping up in the city's absence, paying its own way to provide basic services that other San Francisco neighborhoods take for granted.

The Tenderloin Community Benefit District’s Clean Team collects thousands of needles monthly, and cleans feces and refuse off sidewalks daily. Its Safe Passage program helps school-age children navigate the neighborhood without having to witness sidewalk drug use, and elderly people make their way across dangerous crosswalks where neighborhood residents are regularly killed by motorists. 

Before the advent of mobile toilets and hand-washing stations in the pandemi, the Urban Alchemy stewards that oversee them were already required back-up security at any Tenderloin public event, from the weekly farmers markets to food-truck gatherings.

Tents span Eddy Street's southern sidewalk between Hyde and Larkin streets.

“The Mayor, the Emergency Operations Center, Department of Public Health and various city departments have failed Tenderloin residents during this pandemic," Haney said. "The residents have been left unprotected, despite yelling, screaming, fighting for the last [two] months as people's lives here are being put in danger."

“I'd like to see the Mayor and City Departments fully support the residents and businesses in the Tenderloin, and protect their well-being, safety, and health."

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