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Tenderloin and Mid-Market improvement plan met with high hopes, and some skepticism

Last month, Mayor London Breed issued a sweeping announcement about the city’s commitment to a Mid-Market Vibrancy and Safety Plan. In a press release, Breed promised up to $8.8 million in city funding and another $3 million in state funding, over a three-year period, to support a major effort to improve public safety in the Mid-Market, Civic Center, and Tenderloin neighborhoods.

So far, the San Francisco Police Department has increased its presence in the area to address the ongoing and growing safety concerns in the neighborhood. But the crux of the plan is an influx of additional, non-police community ambassadors. These new eyes on the ground will be largely unarmed, nonprofit employees who have been trained to assist with drug overdoses and act as helpful stewards that de-escalate conflict and connect people in the neighborhood to city resources.

Leaders with the city and neighborhood organizations are optimistic that a slow, collaborative rollout of this new model for public safety could create long-term change in the Tenderloin, while others remain skeptical that the ambitious plan will be much more than a band-aid.

Police and Urban Alchemy ambassadors monitor the intersection of Turk and Hyde Streets I Camille Cohen

The new Mid-Market plan builds on past efforts, including a collaborative pilot program between the Mid-Market, Tenderloin, and Civic Center community benefit districts (CBD) that was focused on improving the efficiency of neighborhood cleaning, according to Steve Gibson, interim executive director of the Mid-Market Business Association (MMBA).

Gibson said the pilot aimed to improve cleaning without any additional funding, and “started to seem successful before the pandemic hit.” 

As COVID and associated city-wide shutdowns threw a wrench in the operations of the pilot, the CBDs continued to work together. 

“We started to think about post-pandemic times,” Gibson said. The focus of their planning shifted to understanding what would be necessary to attract businesses and workers back after more than a year away, and to attract students back to University of California Hastings College of Law. UC Hastings is also partnering on the new Tenderloin plan, having helped to secure state funding as well as offering pro bono legal services to Urban Alchemy, a nonprofit that provides community ambassadors in San Francisco. 

A police line is set up on O’Farrell Street after a robbery and shooting on June 10, 2021 I Camille Cohen

“Safety is the top concern for addressing all of these three, and is at the heart of the new plan,” Gibson said. MMBA, which is taking the lead in implementing the plan, aims to coordinate not only with neighboring CBDs but also with the city’s own Street Response Teams, which assist with behavioral health-related calls in lieu of police. Mayor Breed hopes to increase the number of teams from seven to 14 as part of the budget for next year. 

The overarching goal of the Mid-Market plan is to reduce the need for policing and community safety patrols after two or three years, according to Fernando Pujals, Senior Director of Communications and Clean Operations at the Tenderloin Community Benefit District (TLCBD).

“But it is extremely difficult work,” Pujals told Here/Say. “It requires a transformative lift of the whole neighborhood.”

Learning from the past

“In the past, I’d look at programming to improve safety” in the neighborhood, Pujals said. The TLCBD has worked with other neighborhood organizations to provide outdoor recreation, physical education, and other forms of positive community engagement for all ages throughout the neighborhood—from performance and tactile arts classes to trick-and-treat events—but the COVID situation and ongoing health and safety issues have made offering these programs a challenge. 

“Now I think we need safety to be able to support and bring back programming,” Pujals said.

Gibson told us that historically, targeted efforts to improve various safety concerns or problem areas have been viewed as successful in the short term, but often the issues the programs attempted to address would just move to a new location in the neighborhood. 

Without a consistent, sustained effort, it is basically like whack-a-mole, Gibson said: The big problems move from one corner to another, but are never actually resolved. 

“We’re seeing that past interventions don’t work anymore,” said Urban Alchemy chief executive and founder Lina Miller during a virtual panel on the new Tenderloin plan on June 14. Miller launched Urban Alchemy in 2018 after leaving Hunters’ Point Family, a nonprofit supporting at-risk youth and young adults in San Francisco. 

A worker walks the Civic Center grounds as an unhoused neighbor dozes on the grass I Camille Cohen

District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney reiterated this overarching concern. 

“The main challenge has been that, in the past, the interventions have been only temporary,” Haney said. “We have seen patchwork efforts isolated to one block that improve conditions in one small area, only to make another one much, much worse.” 

Unlike prior efforts to address safety in the area, the new Mid-Market plan offers two years of committed funding and broader collaboration across neighborhood groups and the city. 

“It is the first time ever we have funding for a long enough term to be successful,” Gibson said. "Now we can be consistent and strategic.” 

Pujals shared Gibson’s optimism, saying that the breadth and scope of the plan are encouraging.

“It includes new city and community collaborations that haven’t existed in the past,” he said. These new collaborations include on-the-ground street case management that steers people in need to city services, with a focus on those who previously lacked access, and a new daily briefing with city leaders and the Tenderloin police captain.

Meanwhile, Urban Alchemy plans to gradually roll out additional community ambassadors throughout the plan’s territory.

Major Freeman of Urban Alchemy and Cyntia Salazar of TLCBDS’s Safe Passage program play with kids at Sergeant John Macaulay Park on June 10, 2021 I Camille Cohen

The influx of Urban Alchemy ambassadors was due to begin on June 15, according to the Mayor’s announcement. Gibson told Here/Say the roll out will be slow and strategic. 

“It has to be a careful, incremental, block-by-block deployment to be effective,” Gibson said. 

Because the $5 million in city funding for the additional ambassadors still has to make it through the budget process, the money also won’t be available until August or September. 

Some funding has been identified to deploy additional ambassadors within the Tenderloin at two or three blocks, which is expected to occur around June 17, Gibson said. Once additional city funding is available, Urban Alchemy will deploy more ambassadors in the Tenderloin and Mid-Market areas.

Currently, there are between 12 and 20 practitioners working daily within the Tenderloin neighborhood, and by the end of July or early August the intent is to have an additional 20 Urban Alchemy ambassadors walking the Tenderloin and some areas of Market Street, said Urban Alchemy director of strategic partnerships and special projects Michael Anderer during the June 14 panel. 

“Considering I’m the chair of the budget committee, I’m very optimistic” about the additional funding being approved in upcoming budgets, Haney told Here/Say. He added that he’s very supportive of the plan, and has been providing input into its design over the past several months. 

“We clearly need it… there are a lot of needs on the streets here that need to be addressed,” Haney said. “It’s both immediate and broader in scope, and will have to rely largely on non-police-led responses, which are essential.”

Different Block, Different Problems—And Solutions

“Each block is very different,” Gibson said. “There are negotiations with people occupying a block, and we have to consider: If we can successfully change the dynamics on that block, where do those prior occupants go?”

Thomas 'T' Williams and his dog, Simba, relax in front of the former Brown Jug bar. The Brown Jug closed in June 2016 and the space at the corner of Eddy and Hyde is still vacant I Camille Cohen

For the corner of Larkin and Geary, the main need and first focus should be cleanliness, according to Nicole Schwieterman, who has operated Fleet Wood, a screen printing shop and local goods store at 839 Larkin Street, for over six years.

“I see four clean-up crews every day, between the CBDs, Urban Alchemy, and Public Works, and it’s still a wreck… I don’t even know where it comes from,” Schwieterman said. 

Fleet Wood store front I Camille Cohen

However, Schwieterman believes that, on a broader scale—and beyond the corner she’s most familiar with—the top priority the plan must address is mental health.

“A mental health crisis team could solve a lot of our problems,” she added.  

The current ambassadors, which are largely funded by the CBDs, have been a positive contribution to the neighborhood, according to Schwieterman. She questioned the need for an increased police presence in the Tenderloin.

“They’re not linked to safety, in my mind,” she said, recounting the two times she’s called the cops over the six years Fleet Wood has operated at its Larkin Street location. She said that in one instance, police officers arrived more than four hours after a girl stole a large amount of jewelry. A second time, when a man robbed her at knife point, she said they never came. 

“Honestly, the homeless neighbors and the open-air drug dealers across the street have helped me more than the cops,” she told Here/Say, saying that people on the street daily recognize problems as they’re happening.

At the June 14 panel, Miller told Tenderloin residents that the goal of this plan is for Urban Alchemy ambassadors, CBDs, and SFPD alike to develop deeper relationships in the neighborhood, and “identify more things for people to do, within the Tenderloin.”

“For the people living stacked up in 8’ by 8’ rooms, or unsheltered, or in cramped family housing… how do we elevate and address their needs?” Miller added, reminding attendees that the Tenderloin is home to many vulnerable residents. 

“We are working with this team to imagine what a safe, clean Tenderloin looks like, one that provides access to people currently lacking it, to connect those in need to city resources, that is our goal,” Miller said. 

John Lee and Marc Matt pose for a portrait while maintaining Larkin Street with Civix Pitt Stop on June 10, 2021 I Camille Cohen

SFPD Tenderloin Police Captain Chris Canning addressed residents at the same June 14 panel. 

“Captain Canning is part of the solution,” Miller told attendees.

“Quite simply, the way that I look at this plan, it is a way to forge a sustainable partnership with every city department, city organization, and neighborhood group all together,” Canning said. The effort breaks through silos and puts the focus on issues that need to be addressed throughout the neighborhood, he added.

Canning told the panel attendees that representatives from the plan’s partners, including SFPD, meet daily for a regular briefing in the UN Plaza area. He emphasized that these daily briefings—and the plan, more broadly—are not police-led. 

“The workers are able to track and discuss trends and respond more nimbly to problems that, quite frankly, in the past were delayed or underserved,” Canning said. “We’ve cut through some of the bureaucracy and have a daily conversation, and then go out and do the work.” 

Schwieterman moved to the Tenderloin when she first relocated to San Francisco 17 years ago. Although she now lives in a different neighborhood, she works at her shop at the intersection of Larkin and Geary almost daily and remains engaged in the local arts community, leading the Lower Polk and Tenderloin monthly art walk and working to attract new mural installations throughout the neighborhood. She told us she keeps her business operating in the Tenderloin because she loves the people, the community, the culture, and the food. 

Tony Davidson relaxes on his usual corner in the Tenderloin | Camille Cohen

“But I spend more than 25% of my time every day focused on ‘what’s going on, outside, on the street,’” Schwieterman said. She hopes to be proven wrong, but views the plan and the mayor’s announcement as “an extra-large bandaid on a massive wound that has been open and growing for decades.”

“It’s not just a question of me operating my business safely…these are people, on the streets, who need help,” she added.

The question now, according to separate conversations with Haney, Gibson, and Pujals, is how to solve the growing problems on Tenderloin streets, rather than just moving them around.

Haney says the city has committed to growing its street crisis response teams, including those trained to address mental health and overdose issues, but admits current resources aren’t enough to handle the scale of the neighborhood’s problems.

“Urban Alchemy practitioners need to have resources to send people to, or to call on for support, in every moment of every day,” Haney said. “We can’t just keep asking people to move on instead of actually providing help.” 

Miller said the focus—the three main goals—of the plan are to increase safety, increase access to resources, and make the neighborhood more livable. 

“The beautiful thing about this plan is that we’re focused on ‘how can we make sure the Tenderloin is safer not for gentrification purposes, but more livable for everyone,’” she said.

Getting Resourceful

La Cocina Marketplace, which just opened at the corner of Golden Gate and Hyde streets in May, has a pilot partnership with Urban Alchemy.  

Naomi Maisel, who manages community partnerships at La Cocina, described the Urban Alchemy ambassadors as “true community partners that offer presence with love and respect toward members [of the community] at the intersection of addiction, mental illness, extreme poverty and hopelessness.”

Nafy Flatley, owner of Teranga in La Cocina, poses with one of her dishes for the stand’s social media accounts on July 10, 2021. | Camille Cohen

Maisel sees promise in “creating spaces that push against that trend” in existing and future partnerships between the TLCBD, the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, UC Hastings, and other community organizations.

La Cocina hopes this new Mid-Market plan will create a “sustained and intentional investment to improve and transform the conditions of this corner and broader neighborhood because that kind of investment is required for real impact,” according to Maisel. The plan should not just be cosmetic, Maisel said: Although street cleaning and clearing out encampments improve may improve aesthetics, the goal of the plan should be to “raise up the people and places that make the neighborhood as vibrant as it is.” 

Effective partnerships also allow the police to focus more on issues that truly require police intervention, rather than “administrative tasks and other non-police suitable issues,” said Canning at the June 14 panel. 

“One way we can expand our capacity is through partnerships like this,” he said. 

“TLCBD is accountable to the neighborhood—all of its residents and businesses—in a way we are proud of,” said Pujals in agreement.  

A Block by Block employee power-washes the sidewalk in front of La Cocina Marketplace. Block by Block ambassadors provide the TLCBD’s Clean Team service in partnership with the Downtown Streets Team. I Camille Cohen

Pujals suggested the TLCBD’s existing assets could easily be leveraged to support the plan. Although its current capacity can’t cover the whole neighborhood, TLCBD has its own safety ambassadors and a very active Clean Streets team. 

TLCBD also provides staff to monitor neighborhood sites such as playgrounds, the Shared Spaces parklet on Turk Street, and the Tenderloin National Forest, which are used by other Tenderloin organizations committed to improving the neighborhood while preserving its character. It has to be a collaborative effort, and the deployment of additional SFPD patrols and community ambassadors will be incremental, Pujals said. 

“It will be a staged roll-out, and it’s really just beginning,” he added. 

The addition of new Urban Alchemy ambassadors later this summer will focus on the places that are considered the most dangerous in the neighborhood, especially locations where open-air drug dealing is common, Anderer said. Ambassadors are already in the neighborhood seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., he added. 

“We won’t flip a switch and be all better, but we’re all working to align on those three main goals [Miller identified],” Canning said. “We are forging new partnerships, and I think those will be beneficial and more successful than what we’ve seen in the past,” he added. 

The hope — by the CBDs, Urban Alchemy, Canning, Tenderloin business owners, and Haney —is for the city’s systems of healthcare, street outreach, and homeless resources to be integrated into the Urban Alchemy ambassador model, and to roll out a comprehensive solution in the Tenderloin and Mid-Market neighborhoods.

The major outstanding questions are whether funding for the plan, which is under consideration in the Mayor’s 2021-2023 budget plan, will be approved. Ultimately, the success of the Tenderloin plan will hinge on long-term collaboration, and ongoing communication,  between the city and organizations tasked with executing it. 

“In some places we really do just need a couple of people standing on the corner, all day long, to address issues as they come up,” Haney said. “But nothing is going to change overnight.”