Mayor Breed's Tenderloin drug emergency is ending. Does data show she met her goals? – San Francisco Chronicle

San Francisco Mayor London N. Breed joins elected and City officials to declare a State of Emergency in the Tenderloin, San Francisco, Calif. On Friday, December 17, 20201.
Mayor London Breed grabbed national headlines at the end of last year with her pronouncement that San Francisco needed to be “less tolerant of all the bulls— that has destroyed our city” — referring to crime citywide, but especially in the Tenderloin. She declared a state of emergency in the neighborhood and vowed to reduce overdose deaths, crack down on drug use and dealing and get people on the streets into treatment and housing.
On Thursday, her 90-day state of emergency will end. Daily operations including street cleaning and outreach to get people off the streets and into services will continue through the end of June. The city wants to keep operating through December a linkage center opened at U.N. Plaza where people can drop in to get basic services such as food and try to get connected to longer-term help.
The emergency led to noticeable changes: The speedy opening of the linkage center and the hiring of more than 160 behavioral health workers. But while some Tenderloin streets are cleaner and easier to navigate, more people have been arrested for drug crimes and others have moved into housing and treatment, many residents, advocates and supervisors said the situation hasn’t changed meaningfully — and data does not clearly show that neighborhood conditions have improved significantly.
“We are as much in an emergency today as it was three months ago,” Supervisor Matt Haney, who lives in and represents the Tenderloin, said during Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.
Haney appreciated the linkage center and mobilization of resources, but said residents had feared “false promises” of change. He pushed for assurance that ending the emergency “doesn’t mean that we’re going to pull back on our commitment to the residents and small businesses of this neighborhood, and it doesn’t mean we’ll pull back on our commitment to responding to what is now the deadliest epidemic in our city” — drug overdoses killing nearly two people a day.
Breed cautioned residents before she announced her emergency order that change wouldn’t happen overnight. The mayor said Monday she’s heard from some residents that the streets are cleaner, but more work needs to be done.
“It’s going to get better as we continue the pressure,” she said. She added that the city invests more in social services in the Tenderloin than any other community and said “it’s time for it to actually work, so accountability will play a role.”
Reducing overdose deaths
Breed declared the emergency because of the drug overdose crisis, which has killed more than 1,300 people in the city over the past two years. Nearly a quarter of overdoses last year were in the Tenderloin.
It’s too early to judge whether the city has lowered overdose deaths because data is only available from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner through January 2022. That data shows that 10 people died of overdoses in the Tenderloin in January, a figure that was unchanged from December 2021 but a slight decrease from the 13 killed in the neighborhood the previous January.
The goals of the emergency included lowering drug sales, violent crime, street homelessness and drug use in the neighborhood. The initiative was also meant to make sidewalks cleaner and more passable, as well as increase access to behavioral health services.
Using data from police, the Department of Emergency Management and other sources, The Chronicle attempted to measure the emergency order’s success in achieving these goals.
Reduce homelessness and street sleeping
The emergency order succeeded, officials said, in cutting into the number of unsheltered people on the street.
More than 345 people moved into temporary shelters — 283 from outreach on the streets and 66 from the linkage center, according to the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. These numbers include placements into 293 beds in winter shelters. Department spokesperson Emily Cohen could not provide comparison numbers before the emergency, but said there was a significant increase.
The city counted 32 encampments in March 2022, a steep drop from the 61 recorded last November and lower than the 43 encampments recorded last April.
The city did less well in placing people into permanent housing than placing them in shelter. An additional 154 people from the linkage center have begun the process of moving into permanent housing, with 56 moved in already. By comparison, in November 2021, the department of homelessness and supportive housing placed 134 people in housing citywide.
But compared to the need, that progress is likely modest. According to the last city count in 2019, 3,659 unhoused people live in District 6, which includes the Tenderloin. (The city’s overall homeless count was about 8,000 in 2019, although the health department counted 18,000 in its system over the course of a year who were homeless.)
Additionally, calls related to encampments in the Tenderloin did not decrease significantly during the emergency, according to data from the city’s 311 system.
Reduce drug sales and violent crime
Drug-related arrests in the Tenderloin doubled from 79 in the 13 weeks prior to the emergency to 162 under the emergency, police said. While there was a spike in activity over the past three months, numbers have fluctuated historically. There were actually more drug arrests – 180 – during the same time period one year prior to the emergency, from mid-December 2020 to mid-March 2021.
According to data from the San Francisco Police Department, weekly reported drug incidents in the Tenderloin, which include drug possession or sales, increased before the emergency order began and remained elevated through late February. It’s difficult to say whether reported incidents increased because drug use went up or because police reports are capturing more incidents.
The Chronicle also looked at whether the emergency order reduced violent crime, examining how many assaults, robberies and weapons offenses were reported by police weekly. Data shows that reported violent crimes stayed relatively flat in the Tenderloin throughout the order.
In terms of reducing drugs on the streets, weekly police reports show that grams of drugs seized have climbed since October, though that followed a drop from July and August. Currently the weekly amount of drugs seized by the SFPD is higher than it was for most of 2021.
Cleaner sidewalks and streets
The data doesn’t indicate whether the new protocols resulted in cleaner streets. 311 data shows that calls related to “general cleaning” and “human or animal waste” spiked following the emergency declaration.
Again, it’s hard to say whether the increase in calls for service was related to an increase in waste and trash, or if it was spurred by residents’ knowledge of the emergency order and additional resources directed to the neighborhood.
Access to behavioral health and reducing public drug usage
With its linkage center, the city aimed to “link” Tenderloin residents to services like drug rehabilitation and detox, shelters, doctor’s appointments and more. According to weekly reports through March 6, the linkage center saw about 15,600 visits overall, made nearly 1,800 referrals (defined as a worker providing information on how to access a service) and made just over 180 “completed linkages” to services.
The weekly number of “completed linkages” — instances where visitors made appointments for services or were successfully welcomed into shelters — has actually dropped in the last three weeks, and never rose above 50.
In a previous interview with The Chronicle, Department of Emergency Management spokesperson Francis Zamora said the low numbers of completed linkages reflected the difficulty of trying to help people with drug addictions and mental health problems access services like rehab.
Mary Ellen Carroll, who heads emergency management and is overseeing Tenderloin operations, told supervisors the city has so far been “successful” in keeping the streets clear and clean, getting people who are homeless housed and asking others who are housed to stop blocking sidewalks and using drugs on the streets.
Supervisor Dean Preston speaks to the crowd during a protest against Mayor London Breed’s Tenderloin emergency declaration outside City Hall in San Francisco, California Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022.
Continued challenges include drug activity displaced just outside the Tenderloin, Carroll said. Residents, she said, have also told her they want more police to respond to criminal activity.
Despite promises of more cops, it was only on Monday that around 20 more officers were sent from across the city to the Tenderloin, the start of a regular deployment increase, said Tenderloin station Capt. Chris Canning. Before Monday, the neighborhood had a little more than 90 regularly assigned officers, a number that fluctuates.
Supervisors on Tuesday questioned the low numbers of connections from the linkage center. They also wanted more concrete goals to measure effectiveness.
The city signed a lease for the center through June, but will ask supervisors to approve extending it through December. The center will soon expand operations from 12 to 16 hours a day and will create a “sober living room” for people who would like to spend time away from substances. The city is allowing drug use at the center, a decision that critics have attacked as unsafe and counterproductive.
Destin Tianero (right), EMS Captain Fire Department and Tenderloin Incident Commander chats with a woman on Hyde Street on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022 in San Francisco, California.
Dr. Hillary Kunins, the city’s director of behavioral health, said the most frequent request at the linkage center has been for housing and other material support, but staff “urge at every turn recovery support.”
Kelley Cutler, an organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness, said the emergency resulted in new beds opened in hotels. But Cutler said that since those new hotels filled up, she’s heard that only shelters with multiple people in the same room have been offered recently.
“The key factor that it keeps coming down to is having actual resources for people,” she said.
Residents and business owners in the Tenderloin have noticed some marginal improvements on the streets, but many feel the neighborhood hadn’t meaningfully changed.
“To be honest, I don’t really see any change,” said Bushra Alabsi, who runs a daycare center next to where her family has lived since 1998.
Alabsi wants more police to fight drug dealing and community ambassadors to deal with street conditions, plus more housing and a mental health clinic.
In U.N. Plaza Tuesday, people who were using drugs, gave mixed reviews of the Tenderloin emergency and the linkage center.
Ivan Robinson, who lives in Oakland but comes to San Francisco nearly every day, said coming to the center gave him a reason to wake up Monday, when he arrived early to get on a list for permanent housing. He lives in transitional housing in Oakland.
“The linkage center is a good start,” said Robinson, who wants to get into drug treatment. “Just give people more options. Time is a key ingredient in change.”
Mallory Moench and Susie Neilson are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: mallory.moench@sfchronicle.com, susan.neilson@sfchronicle.com Twitter:@mallorymoench @susieneilson
Mallory Moench is a San Francisco City Hall reporter. She joined The San Francisco Chronicle in 2019 to report on business and has also written about wildfires, transportation and the coronavirus pandemic.
She previously covered immigration and local news for the Albany Times Union and the Alabama state legislature for the Associated Press. Before that, she freelanced with a focus on the Yemeni diaspora while studying at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.
Susie Neilson is a data reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle. Previously, she was a science fellow at Business Insider, covered COVID-19 and criminal justice for KQED and worked as a private investigator at the Mintz Group. Her work has also appeared in NPR, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and The New Yorker, among other publications. She is a 2019 graduate of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where she studied investigative and multimedia reporting.
Read more about the data team and their work.

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