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San Francisco

How San Francisco has failed the Tenderloin

Few would dispute that the Tenderloin has been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has intensified long-standing inequities in the city's densest neighborhood.

Tents crowd the sidewalks, making it impossible for residents to walk safely. Unhoused people have limited access to toilets and hand-washing stations, creating a public health hazard. Many small businesses have been vandalized and robbed. And with cramped apartments and little green space, neighbors — including San Francisco's largest per-capita population of children — have nowhere to safely recreate.

On May 6, the Mayor's Office and the city's Human Rights Commission (HRC) released an eight-point plan for addressing the neighborhood's overlapping issues. But a month on, little, if any of the plan has been executed. 

“Calling it a 'plan' of any kind is a misnomer," said District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the Tenderloin. "Very little has been done since it was announced."

Tents crowd the sidewalk on Leavenworth between Ellis and Turk streets.

The Tenderloin Neighborhood Plan was announced just two days after a community coalition, led by UC Hastings, filed suit against the city over sidewalk conditions in the Tenderloin.

Haney says it was clearly developed in a hurry, with little input from local stakeholders. The introduction to the plan itself states that the assessment that forms the bulk of the document was conducted "the morning of April 28." 

In the week following the plan's release, Max Barnes, spokesperson for the city's Emergency Operations Center (EOC), told us that the Human Rights Commission has organized "robust weekly roundtable meetings with members from the Tenderloin," and that "their input and partnership is deeply valued."

But Haney, who meets weekly with 25 people and groups from the community, says "they have had nothing positive to say about the [Tenderloin] plan."

“The whole thing was a sham for PR that wasn’t informed by the neighborhood,” Haney said. 

To investigate the progress of the Tenderloin Neighborhood Plan, we took a point-by-point look at each of its eight initiatives, and the actions San Francisco has taken to address them in the month since the plan was announced. 

Together, they provide a picture of a neighborhood that has been sorely neglected, as officials break promise after promise to improve the lives of residents. 

1. "Address encampments by offering safe sleeping alternatives to unsheltered individuals."

When the city closed its congregant homeless shelters to prevent COVID-19 spread, nearly 1,000 additional people were left to live on the streets. Many of them are now camping in the Tenderloin, where advocates and nonprofits have distributed free tents to allow them a modicum of social distance. 

But with Mayor London Breed refusing to house most homeless people in hotel rooms — despite a unanimous vote by the Board of Supervisors to that effect — the tents have gone from a temporary solution to a permanent one.

That's reflected in their exponential growth. In January, the number of tents in the Tenderloin hovered around 100 to 150. By late May, it was up to nearly 450

A graph of the tent and makeshift encampment count in the Tenderloin from December 10, 2019 through April 28, 2020, which appears in UC Hastings' lawsuit against the city. | Source: UC Hastings College of the Law

Breed's veto of the Supervisors' plan to secure 7,000 hotel rooms for unhoused people was a "line in the sand" that left the Supervisors wondering what can be done, Haney said. 

"When she ignores unilateral Supervisor opinion, how can we uphold representative government?" he asked.

With hotel rooms largely off the table, tent villages — dubbed "safe sleeping sites" by the city — are being used as a next-best measure for the unhoused.

In mid-May, the city opened a safe sleeping site on Fulton Street in Civic Center, with room for 90 socially distanced tents and access to meals and sanitation. But it may shut down by the end of June.

According to Tenderloin Community Benefit District communications director Fernando Pujals, the people that reside at the Fulton Street site signed an agreement to eventually move away, with a target date of June 30. Haney also confirmed the site may close towards the end of June.

“Allegedly, people will be placed in hotels, housing, or some other safe sleeping site," Haney said. "I’ll believe it when I see it.” 

Besides the Fulton Street site, only one additional safe sleeping site has opened in the Tenderloin. Located on a city-owned lot at 180 Jones St., it was intended for 10 tents, but is populated by more than 20 today. 

Residents of the site say there's been no security since they moved in, even though the city had previously paid a security contractor $6,000/week to guard the empty lot. The site now holds more than double the planned number of tents, meaning residents can't keep a six-foot social distance. 

The tent count at 180 Jones St. today was more than double the number of residents the city had expected. The site remains surrounded by more tents on the sidewalks.

Potential residents for the Jones Street site were told by the city's Homeless Outreach Team that it would have bathrooms, showers, hand-washing stations and food, said Chelsea Crumpler, outreach director for the Coalition on Homelessness (COH).

But none of those services were offered for nearly two weeks. Crumpler said a porta-potty and hand-washing station finally arrived at 180 Jones last week, but they're not exclusive to the site's residents; anyone on the street can use them.

There is also still no food or running water — a particular challenge to the wheelchair users camping at the site, who are unable to travel far to access them. Residents are told to stand in line at GLIDE or St. Anthony’s to get food.

Meanwhile, hundreds of tents continue to populate the surrounding sidewalks, making it impossible for both unhoused people and pedestrians to socially distance. 

The tents have an impact on local businesses, too. "Tents are blocking the doorways of businesses in the Tenderloin, literally keeping owners from opening their essential business," said Aref Egaali, president of the Tenderloin Merchants Association.

An encampment blocks the doorway of a restaurant at Ellis and Larkin streets.

2. "Facilitate social distancing compliance by closing streets and parking."

3. "Ensure that housed residents in the Tenderloin have safe passage and access to their homes and businesses."

San Francisco's less-dense western neighborhoods have seen plenty of street closures in the past month, to provide more car-free space for residents to walk, bike and exercise amid the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order.

But in the Tenderloin — the city's densest neighborhood — only a few parking spots have been closed to allow for more pedestrian space.

Neighbors rallied on Taylor Street last month to call for the closure of some streets, which were supposed to be considered in the Tenderloin plan. None have been closed as of yet, even as neighboring Union Square saw overnight lane closures in response to the protests over the police killing of George Floyd.

Protesters block Taylor Street in the Tenderloin on May 22 to demand further lane closures.

Neither the SFMTA nor the EOC responded to a request for comment on why the Tenderloin has no "Slow Streets," though Haney says the former agency is aware of the issue. 

“I took [SFMTA director] Jeff Tumlin on a walk through the Tenderloin, and I think he is very aware that MTA has failed the Tenderloin by ignoring it with its Slow Streets program,” Haney said.

However, Haney did not disclose any insight into what Tumlin and SFMTA plan to do in response to the tour.

The agency does plan to start construction on the Safer Taylor Street project, which will cut Taylor to one lane of traffic between Turk and Ellis, later this year. 

4. "Increase health services in the neighborhood."

The Tenderloin plan calls for a temporary COVID-19 testing site in the neighborhood. While it opened on May 19, it was plagued early on with technical issues — including a requirement to own a smartphone, a luxury many low-income residents can't afford. 

While the mobile testing site has the capacity to conduct several hundred tests per day, residents are still being asked to make an online appointment if they need or want to be tested.

That leaves out thousands of housed and unhoused residents without Internet access, who have no recourse to a currently closed library system. 

“Some things have happened, but the fight has been hard and the results have been disappointing, at best,” Haney said. 

5. "Increase education and outreach to residents and businesses through a ‘care ambassador’ program."

The Tenderloin Plan proposed providing "ambassadors" to do outreach in the neighborhood. Their job would be to promote social distancing and inform residents — housed and unhoused alike — of the Tenderloin testing site.

While there is information on the city's website about the local testing site, no ambassadors have appeared in the neighborhood.

Instead, existing community organizations —  the Tenderloin Peoples' Congress, the Tenderloin Community Benefit District (TLCDB), GLIDE, and Haney's office — have taken on the job of handing out physical flyers and making calls about the test site. 

6. "Improve access to hygiene stations, restrooms and garbage disposal for unhoused individuals."

In response to COVID-19, the city deployed three new 24-hour "pit stops" in the Tenderloin, with public restrooms and hand-washing stations. 

Combined with the porta-potty at the 180 Jones St. sleeping site, that makes for a grand total of nine bathrooms — to service more than 450 tents, some of which have multiple residents. 

What's more, SF Public Works clearly states on its Pit Stop website that the four new hygiene stations are only in place "temporarily to augment the program" during the ongoing public health crisis, meaning that they'll likely disappear once the pandemic dies down. 

Since sweeps and other similar actions to displace unhoused residents have been put on hold, trash related to encampments continues to pile up near existing city trash cans and throughout the neighborhood's streets and sidewalks. There have been no incremental trash services deployed by the city.

The Tenderloin CBD's Clean Streets team has picked up the slack, though it had to take a brief hiatus in April when one of its members fell ill. It returned to full operation on April 20, after the team tested negative for COVID-19.

7. "Address food and water insecurity for housed and unhoused residents alike."

Access to clean drinking water is another major issue for unhoused people. To support them, the city added manifolds to six Tenderloin fire hydrants, with taps to fill a water bottle. 

The manifolds have historically been deployed during city emergencies, such as earthquakes, according to Will Reisman, press secretary with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. They're disinfected in the morning when they are deployed, and in the evening when they are brought in.

But Crumpler notes that many unhoused people can't afford their own water bottles, and that the taps are also inaccessible to people with disabilities.

The signs on the manifolds also say they can't be used for hand-washing, though Riesman says that they can be, as long as the user stays a foot away from the tap.

A water manifold with drinking water taps, attached to a fire hydrant at Polk and Turk.

We sought input from multiple community members on whether the city has provided additional resources for food and water for Tenderloin residents. Aside from the manifolds, none said they've seen any since the plan was issued.

Again, nonprofits have filled the gap. GLIDE and St. Anthony's are still serving daily meals funded through community donations, while the Salvation Army's Kroc Center has a food pantry each Friday and breakfast and lunch for kids under 17 each weekday.

The SF-Marin Food Bank is sponsoring "pop-up pantries" at spots adjacent to, but not within, the Tenderloin, including Tuesdays at the San Francisco Ballet (333 Fulton St.) and Thursdays at Bessie Carmichael Elementary (375 7th St.).

8. "Increase police presence in the neighborhood to focus on public safety concerns."

Neighbors and business owners have long decried the persistent open-air drug dealing in the Tenderloin — and they say it's only worsened since the pandemic started, as SFPD has largely pulled out of "buy-bust" operations. 

The lack of enforcement has also had an impact on people who take drugs. According to the Chronicle, emergency calls to the Fire Department for drug overdoses nearly doubled in February-April 2020, compared to the same time period in 2019.

"It's big, and dangerous and scary, and we have to do something," Haney said.

Drug dealers crowd the street corners around the Tenderloin's encampments.

Last year, the Board of Supervisors approved and funded a new 12-member street-level drug dealing task force. Comprised of representatives from the Tenderloin and SoMa, drug dealers, and law enforcement, it's tasked with making quarterly reports to the Board, and eventually proposing policy changes based on community input. 

In the meantime, the Tenderloin plan suggests that police deployed in the neighborhood should follow existing protocols, and work with the Department of Public Health to identify more treatment options for people who take drugs.

But no additional treatment options have been provided as of yet. And the plan's proposal does not directly address open-air drug dealing, which was one of UC Hastings' main complaints in the suit filed last month.

“[B]y closing streets and permitting encampments on the sidewalks, particularly without a strategic action plan for enforcement of drug laws, the drug-dealing epidemic will get immediately worse, not better,” Rhiannon Bailard, UC Hastings' director of operations, told the HRC in a letter last month.

She said the school wants to see a stronger, enforceable timeline and strategy for addressing the drug-dealing issue. 

Plan is a 'hot potato' among city agencies

So why haven't most aspects of the Tenderloin Plan been implemented? Haney says a lack of commitment among city agencies is to blame. 

The initial lead on the plan was Daniel Wu, an environmental planner at San Francisco International Airport who was given on loan to the EOC. He's since returned to his original post, and Haney says he never even met him. 

Haney says the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD) is now tasked with the plan's implementation. But the OEWD says differently. 

"OEWD has deployed a number of staff as disaster service workers to assist with EOC operations in the Tenderloin," said OEWD spokesperson Gloria Chan. "But the EOC continues to direct all aspects of the Plan, and remains the sole agency that can speak to its implementation."

The plan is clearly a hot potato, and no one wants ownership of it. 

“People shouldn’t have to accept any more excuses from the City," Haney said.

How to get involved

If you'd like to make your voice heard about the conditions in the Tenderloin, Haney said you can contact him at any time via email or Twitter.

He also encourages Tenderloin residents and supporters to directly contact the Mayor's Office and the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing about the issues they're seeing in the neighborhood.

"The general response so far has been 'We're moving as fast as we can,'" Haney said. "But that's clearly not enough, and is unacceptable to people and businesses trying to survive."

This morning, Haney will hold a hearing before the Board of Supervisors to demand action on the Tenderloin plan, with several city agencies called to discuss their accountability. The hearing will feature a call-in opportunity for public comment, allowing neighbors to express their concerns. 

“The [Tenderloin Plan] is just one more thing on a long list on how people in the Tenderloin are mistreated,” Haney said.

"Community members were right to be skeptical. And everything — all of the inaction —  has fallen in line with their concerns."

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