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Breed declares ‘state of emergency’ in the Tenderloin to force people into treatment

Mayor London Breed announced a state of emergency in the Tenderloin on Friday, saying she wanted to override “bureaucratic red tape” that has kept the city from compelling people to accept mental health and drug treatment.

The Mayor's announcement represents a fresh escalation of her efforts to combat what's viewed by many residents as a crisis in the streets. It concludes a week that began with a fiery Tuesday press conference at which Breed forcefully criticized permissive policies for enabling drug dealing and drug use in the neighborhood.

“We are in an emergency and we need to respond accordingly,” Breed said Friday. “We can’t wait for something to be set up. We can’t wait until something goes through a layered process. … Too many people are dying in this city. Too many people are sprawled out all over our streets.”

San Francisco has become a daily punching bag for right-wing media outlets eager to discredit Democratic policies, and even many Democrats believe the city is failing to address basic public safety problems.

Breed said Friday that effectively addressing the emergency will require the city to “reach people where they’re at” with temporary linkage sites, presented as an alternative to jail, that will provide services to people suffering from mental illness or drug addiction. The state of emergency, which allows the city to bypass local laws–though not federal and state laws–will make it possible to set up the sites quickly.

On Tuesday Breed declared that people would no longer be able to use drugs in the streets with impunity.

Police Chief Bill Scott said the new state of emergency will also make it easier for SFPD to work in partnership with the department of public health’s social services. “We know we need to treat people with dignity and respect, but most of us came on this job not to be social workers, we came on this job to be cops,” Scott said. “Officers have said time and time again. 'Let's have a system where we can get the social workers involved' and that's exactly what this does.” 

Prominent homeless advocates are not on board with the Mayor's approach, arguing that increased policing is historically ineffective for treating people suffering from mental illnesses and addiction.

"We feel like she’s exploiting the concerns of a vulnerable community to promote a law-and- order agenda,” said Jennifer Freidenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. Freidenbach said that while there are advantages to calling a state of emergency, it often results in money being spent “loose and fast.” 

"The issues that Mayor Breed is talking about here are indeed emergencies," Friedenbach said. But she pointed to city failures in dealing with emergencies in the past–such as spending $73,000 a year per person in the safe sleeping village–and advocated for solutions such as keeping pandemic "shelter in place" hotels and initiating Compassionate Alternative Response Teams to respond to 911 calls related to homelessness.

Breed emphasized her earlier stance on forced mental health treatment on Friday, saying that the emergency declaration will allow the city to take the unwilling into treatment. In 2019, a state bill expanded the use of conservatorships–a legal mechanism where an individual's rights to make their own decisions are turned over to a third party– for individuals who are placed in a temporary hold more than eight times over a 12-month period. Breed said the law hasn’t been effective due to lengthy court processes and excessive red tape. 

“We’ve already got the largest numbers by far of permanent conservatorships in the state,” Freidenbach countered. "The problem with the system including conservatorships is that there’s no placement for people...You're basically saying that you want to expand the most expensive, most traumatizing, least effective and already over-utilized element of our treatment system.”

Rudy L., a resident of the civic center’s safe sleeping site who asked that his last name not be used, came to San Francisco over a decade ago to work in a carnival. He said that he never graduated middle school and barely knows how to read or write. He expressed doubts over Breed's plan, asking where people like him are supposed to go.

“You’ve got to want to quit. What’re they going to do, take everyone to jail?” Rudy said.

Rudy said a MRSA infenction in his hip made it impossible for him to work, and his only way of sleeping without pain is drugs.  

“There isn’t really many treatment options out there,” he said. “It ain’t easy out here, it gets cold out here.” 

Additional reporting by James Wyatt

David Sjostedt can be reached at