News dropped Wednesday that the San Francisco government was allowing drug use in an outdoor area of a brand-new community resource center in the beleaguered Tenderloin neighborhood. This week’s opening of the Tenderloin Linkage Center is part of the Mayor’s controversial state of emergency that was declared last month in response to the historically-underprivileged downtown neighborhood’s homelessness and addiction issues.
A spokesperson for San Francisco Mayor London Breed told the SF Chronicle that the “emergency initiative is about doing everything we can to help people struggling with addiction, and getting them connected to services and treatment. As part of that, the linkage center is serving as a low-barrier site to bring people off the street.”
“This site is about getting people connected with immediate support as well as long-term services and treatment,” said Francis Zamora of the Department of Emergency Management (the agency tasked with overseeing the linkage center) in the same article. “Part of being a low-barrier site means bringing people in without asking a lot of questions.”
Critics like conservative writer Michael Shellenberger say the city is running an “illicit drug consumption site.” But for many harm reduction advocates who have long pushed for a safe injection site as a way to combat the city’s overdose epidemic, the move to allow semi-supervised substance-taking is not enough.
In December, Mayor London Breed declared a state of emergency in the Tenderloin, where overdose rates have soared during the pandemic years (the neighborhood accounted for 23 percent of the city’s overdoses last year.) The plan has met certain resistance over its vagueness, particularly surrounding police involvement and housing resources.
Overdose rates in San Francisco are soaring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as they have in the rest of the United States — a record-breaking 100,000 people died from overdoses in the United States between May 2020 and April 2021. Mayor Breed previously expressed interest in opening a “drug sobering center,” which is PR-speak for a safe injection site, like the country’s firsts that recently opened in New York City. Criticism of the effectiveness of such sites — which are not strictly legal under federal law — must be taken with an even larger grain of salt after those two NYC locations announced this week that their staff intervened in 114 overdoses in their first six weeks of operation alone.
Representatives from San Francisco community groups, like the non-profit Coalition on Homelessness, hold that the city already had a plan to combat the overdose epidemic before the state of emergency was declared — it just hasn’t funded it. The Compassionate Alternative Response Team would install community-group-led street teams trained to direct unhoused individuals to services and build a similarly community-run resource center.
“The idea is to have very extensively trained and well-paid peer teams that look like and are of the community,” Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition of Homelessness, told local site 48hills, in an article that added the CART initiative’s relatively cheap (considering the gravity of the city’s situation) price tag of $6 million has only been halfway funded by the city government.
For now, San Francisco drug users are left with a semi-private (though easily monitored by sensationalist media drones, as the UK’s Daily Mail proved this week) fenced-off plaza section in which to shoot up—rather than a proven-effective, supervised safe injection site.