Drug dealers in the Tenderloin come out in force at night. What can S.F. do to stop the chaos? – San Francisco Chronicle

It was as though a switch flicked on at 9:30 p.m. at Turk and Larkin streets in San Francisco last Friday.
All day, office workers had streamed by, grabbing lunch or coffee. In the evening, the crowds headed to and from shows or shopping. But after dark fully set in — that was all gone.
David Britt stepped outside Emperor Norton’s bar and warily looked up and down Larkin, one of the Tenderloin’s most troubled streets. Already, a small knot of drug dealers had gathered at Shovels Bar and Grill on the opposite corner. Britt, 59, tried to gauge if it was safe to walk the few blocks north to his home, and he reckoned he needed to move fast.
“There’s been a great change around here during the daytime,” Britt said, referring to community ambassadors who clean and patrol the Tenderloin. “But at night? Drug dealing is the problem. … Arrest the drug dealers. Otherwise nothing will ever change.”
Like Britt, many people acknowledge that a push by the city to make the traditionally gritty neighborhood safer has made strides while the sun’s shining. But at night? They say it’s falling far short.
Last year, Mayor London Breed flooded the Tenderloin with community ambassadors and recently boosted police presence to deter drug activity. In December, she declared a 90-day emergency in the neighborhood to address overdose deaths. She opened a service linkage center to connect people on the streets to housing and treatment.
But many resources disappear at night, and dealers return. Police Chief Bill Scott called the change at night a “constant challenge,” and has said he needs a fully-staffed department to make a bigger difference.
People sit on the ground as others pass by on Hyde Street on Thursday, March 31, 2022 in San Francisco, California.
The streets begin their metamorphosis at 7 p.m., when community ambassadors from nonprofit Urban Alchemy, who are assigned to blocks throughout the neighborhood, go home. The ambassadors discourage people from blocking sidewalks and using and dealing drugs, and they direct people to the linkage center at nearby U.N. Plaza. But the linkage center closes at 8 p.m. The 20 extra officers added a few weeks ago leave by 9:30 p.m., although the overnight shift has more officers on patrol than during the day.
At night, families feel unsafe leaving their homes, and local businesses complain their customers and staff are scared away. Some homeless people leave the neighborhood, worried about safety. Even those using or selling drugs or other goods can find nightfall more dangerous, but didn’t always believe they were part of the problem.
Tenderloin residents and business owners have expressed support for creating housing and treatment to address addiction, mental illness and homelessness, but many also want police to arrest more drug dealers — and some even want users picked up — to make the streets safer.
Especially at night. Near the corner bars at Larkin and Turk, the shift was complete by 10 p.m. For about a block in every direction, dealers with ski masks pulled up to their noses leaned against walls, forking over methamphetamine, fentanyl and heroin to streams of ragged customers. The two bars still pulled in patrons, but the walk to the doors led straight past clumps of people smoking or injecting dope.
Drug use is common on Eddy and Larkin streets in San Francisco.
Police and residents say when officers are present, drug dealers move. But the department, currently more than 500 officers short of recommended staffing levels, says it doesn’t have enough resources to monitor every corner.
In mid-March, the city started funneling at least 20 more officers daily to the neighborhood from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. The department said Thursday it will keep sending extra officers past the initial three weeks committed.
Before the emergency, there were already more officers assigned in the Tenderloin from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. than on other shifts in the neighborhood. But foot patrols are limited at night because of the “complexity” of calls for service and the need to respond more quickly, said Tenderloin Capt. Chris Canning.
Police spokesperson Matt Dorsey said the additional deployment is focused on daytime and evening because of increased demand from residents, families, workers and commuters, and to support workers from city departments and nonprofits including Urban Alchemy “who have reported aggressive, threatening, and assaultive behaviors” by drug dealers and others involved in crime.
Urban Alchemy officials said they don’t have plans to expand hours at night because they’re concerned about safety. Director Lena Miller said expanding at night would require “more infrastructure” such as greater police protection and more training and “would unnecessarily put our practitioners at risk.”
Escalating danger from the drug scene has been pronounced.
In February, rival drug pushers fired shots outside Shovels and some ran inside to hide, said owner Kelly Vance. No one was hurt, but the shooting rattled everyone and a couple of people quit right after that.
“The only thing that will help is if the cops start arresting people,” said Vance, 30, who’s owned the bar for three years. “Stop giving people a safe place to get drugs.”
Drugs are rampant along Eddy Street in San Francisco.
Police say they are trying: During the emergency, officers doubled the amount of the opioid fentanyl seized, which was more than triple the same time period last year. They also doubled drug-related arrests, but there were fewer than last year.
At U.N. Plaza, which is within the Tenderloin police district, the situation is similar. The juxtaposition between night and day stood out starkly there last week.
On Thursday afternoon, shoppers and commuters bustled past a security-guarded T-Mobile store on Market Street, and a dozen or so people hawked their wares in front of a vacant commercial building on the plaza.
The area around the linkage center was mostly empty except for two police officers, a couple of security guards and six Urban Alchemy ambassadors. Before 5 p.m., roughly 15 officers swarmed one man — a fentanyl dealer, one officer said. So many officers responded because they were all in the area, the cop said.
By just after 8 p.m., the scene shifted. Drug dealers and users lined the front of the gated T-Mobile store. The plaza crowd swelled to around 40 people, then more than 75 by 9:30 p.m. Most tried to pawn off basic goods — candles, grilled meat, cigarettes — although some pushed marijuana and fentanyl.
Around 9:45 p.m., a cop car drove onto the plaza. An officer ordered people over the loudspeaker to “scoot,” and the crowd straggled off.
City officials are trying to ensure that families with young children in the Tenderloin — among the groups that lobbied the mayor for help — feel safer. In addition to escorting kids to school during the day, squads of adults help out at night for the rare family activity that pushes into the evening. On a recent Friday, 100 kids gathered for a teen night at the Tenderloin Recreation Center near the corner of Ellis and Hyde streets.
“What makes the difference around here is people like me,” the center’s facility coordinator, Sondra Long, said. “The men here and I just go out and ask people to move.
“And some of the people on the streets, homeless people and drug users — even they help us,” she said. “They don’t want people messing with the kids either.”
Mac Locksley, who says he uses methamphetamine and once was revived from an overdose, smokes on a Hyde Street sidewalk.
On Hyde Street the night before, Mac Locksley — sitting on a cardboard box, graying hair swept back and blackened fingernails holding a glass pipe — agreed it was better not to do drugs around kids, but otherwise didn’t have an issue with open-air drug use.
“Unless you’re making an ass out of yourself, I don’t think doing drugs is really bad,” he said.
Locksley, who is from Scotland, takes speed and weed. He noticed the contrast in the Tenderloin at night — the streets could be “creepy” and “scary” — but said he personally didn’t feel unsafe.
Not everyone who’s shooting or smoking up on the streets wants to be there. Or enjoys the night scene.
On Larkin Street last Friday night, a 31-year-old woman who often sleeps outside and gave her name only as Sarah lay on a bus bench waiting to smoke the fentanyl she’d just bought. Behind her, six drug dealers sold dope to people coming and going at a brisk clip.
“Nobody living in these apartments around here likes this scene — and do you think we want to live like this?” she said. “If there really was rehab here, really something I could go to, I’d take it. But every time I ask, there’s a giant waiting list. So what else can I do?”
One block away, Vance, the besieged bar owner, tried not to give into hopelessness that the neighborhood’s problems would persist.
“We’ve been overlooked for so long, we’ve just about given up that anyone gives a s—,” she said. “But I don’t want to give up.”
Mallory Moench (she/her) and Kevin Fagan are Chronicle staff writers. Email: mallory.moench@sfchronicle.com, kfagan@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @mallorymoench @KevinChron
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.
Kevin Fagan is a longtime reporter at The San Francisco Chronicle. He specializes in enterprise news-feature writing and breaking news, taking particular pleasure in ferreting out stories others might not find – from profiling the desperate lives of homeless drug addicts to riding the rails with hobos, finding people who sleep in coffins and detailing the intricacies of hunting down serial killers.
From 2003 to 2006, Kevin was the only beat reporter in the United States covering homelessness full time. He has witnessed seven prison executions and has covered many of the biggest breaking stories of our time, from the Sept. 11 terror attacks at Ground Zero and the Columbine High School massacre to Barack Obama’s election as president, the deadly Mendocino Complex, Wine Country and Ghost Ship fires and the Occupy movement. Homelessness remains a special focus of his, close to his heart as a journalist who cares passionately about the human condition.
He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from San Jose State University and was raised in California and Nevada.


Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *