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Analysis: Political history haunts Mayor Breed as she attempts (another) Tenderloin cleanup

SFPD detain a man in the Tenderloin in San Francisco on April 14, 2021 | James Wyatt | Source: James Wyatt

After less than eight months of commuting through San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood, former U.S. Attorney David Anderson had seen enough.

In order to reach his office at the Phillip Burton Federal Building & U.S. Courthouse on Golden Gate Avenue, Anderson and his colleagues at the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration had to drive or walk through the neighborhood’s notorious open-air drug market. Federal law enforcement worked in the city's de-facto “containment zone” for vice.

In his first news conference as then-President Donald Trump’s chief local law enforcer, Anderson announced in August 2019 that 17 federal agencies would participate in a crackdown on a neighborhood “smothered by lawlessness.”

While homelessness and street crime were part of the area’s woes, what bothered Anderson most was the drugs: 56% of the city’s drug arrests were concentrated in the Tenderloin’s 50 square blocks. Anderson’s “Federal Initiative for the Tenderloin” would notch dozens of arrests over the remaining 18 months of his tenure, including 32 Honduran nationals caught dealing drugs on street corners within sight of the federal courthouse.

But all of this was very familiar—then and now.

Mayor London Breed last month had her own press conference declaring a “state of emergency” in the Tenderloin. All that had been going wrong in the neighborhood—a life expectancy nearly 10 years shorter than the citywide average, the worst concentration of poverty in the city—was actually getting worse. Instead of 56% of the city’s drug arrests, the Tenderloin’s share of such crimes rose to 60% last year, according to SFPD data.

The mayor was mad, and her colorful reference to “all the bullshit that has destroyed our city” garnered national headlines. Her get-tough vision—police descending on the neighborhood and offering users a choice of treatment or jail—enjoyed enough support that skeptical SF supervisors went on to approve the state of emergency declaration after a contentious 10-plus hour meeting just before Christmas.

The board on Tuesday affirmed its support for the emergency declaration, though some supervisors still hope to undo it. Breed on Tuesday also answered critics who said her plan was too vague by providing more details, including the location of a key new social services center at 1170 Market St. 

In taking on the Tenderloin, history shows that the mayor has certainly met her match

The Tenderloin is plagued by problems that have defied attempted solutions for decades, despite the efforts of past mayors, police chiefs and prosecutors. It’s served as the city’s catchment basin for all manner of vice since the days of the Barbary Coast, and it’s also been the city’s hub for low-income housing, substance-abuse treatment and other services—resisted elsewhere in the city—since the 1980s. Without suppressing causes or demand, anything that suppresses drug use and crime in the Tenderloin risks simply moving it to other parts of town. And more comprehensive solutions to addiction, mental illness, poverty, homelessness and sky-high housing costs—all of which are major contributors to the Tenderloin’s problems—are largely outside of the city’s control.

Members of San Francisco’s Homeless Outreach Team perform wellness check-ups and distribute food to people lying on Jones Street on Dec. 17, 2021. | James Wyatt

“I’m trying to remember when we didn’t have an emergency,” said former Supervisor Jane Kim, who represented the Tenderloin on the board from 2011 to 2019. “It’s always a state of emergency in the Tenderloin—and it’s been exacerbated by the pandemic.”

Tenderloin crackdowns have historically focused on law enforcement. Frank Jordan, a former city police chief, tried his version of a cleanup in 1995, a scheme called Matrix. Former Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2004 launched what he called a “scrubdown.” Another former police chief, George Gascón—who later morphed into a progressive district attorney—led another crackdown in 2009. U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, Anderson’s Barack Obama-appointed predecessor, tried to clean up the Tenderloin in 2013 with “Operation Safe Schools,” which targeted dealers peddling too close to schools by using a federal statute to get around more lenient state drug laws. 

And while his tools were techies and realtors, former Mayor Ed Lee’s Twitter tax break and subsequent boosterism of the Mid-Market area was a Tenderloin intervention effort, too.

Neither a spokesperson for Anderson’s successor, Acting U.S. Attorney Stephanie Hinds, nor Gascón, who is now the district attorney in Los Angeles, responded to requests for comment. Newsom’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But so far, the Biden-appointed Hinds has continued prosecuting street dealers while also launching a much softer-sounding Youth Voice Program in the Tenderloin.

Randy Shaw, the outspoken executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and a supporter of Breed’s efforts, said in a blog post published Tuesday that Gascón’s crackdown was the only one that worked; the only problem was that it didn’t last long enough. Other sources tell a slightly different story: Filling the jails with drug users contradicted Newsom’s dictat to incarcerate fewer people, and even many Tenderloin residents and advocates felt locking up drug users was a waste of limited police resources. Gascón himself subsequently appeared to have a conversion: He went on to co-sponsor Prop. 47, which downgraded most drug crimes in the state from felonies to misdemeanors.

Same old law-and-order response? Or…

The initial tenor of Breed’s Tenderloin response was very much in line with the law-and-order approach of her predecessors. It also echoed her riposte to the recent hijinks in Union Square, where a mob cleaned out a Louis Vuitton store amid other flash-mob robberies across the Bay Area. The city responded by closing streets to vehicle traffic and stationing police on every corner, and District Attorney Chesa Boudin duly filed charges. 

Mayor Breed at a press conference on Oct. 19, 2021. | Camille Cohen

On Dec. 28, the mayor’s office circulated a “Strategic Plan and Operation Guide” for the emergency declaration approved a few days prior. At the top of the mayor’s list was “Targeted/strategic disruption and intervention” of “Drug dealing and violent crime.” Police are also central to her plan to interrupt “Open air drug use,” which was listed as third in the mayor’s top seven “priority problems.”

Other aspects of the plan are more holistic–and less carceral. Breed has in some ways gone further than her predecessors with the official emergency declaration itself, which grants her office extra power to push past bureaucratic hurdles like zoning laws. That has helped clear the way for the “linkage center” at 1170 Market St. that was announced Tuesday, where police and social workers will bring troubled people in need of services. (It could also facilitate a long-debated safe-injection site that’s tentatively slated for a Geary Street location, as well as a meth “sobering center” that even some supporters of the crackdown prefer would go somewhere else.) According to the mayor, “TL-dedicated beds” in the city’s homeless-shelter and a mental-health treatment complex are also part of the plan, but how many and where remains to be seen.

Though law-and-order is popular in the midst of pandemic uncertainty and blowback against the defund the police movement, the most successful efforts to clean up the Tenderloin in the past haven’t always been led by police, as Kim and others note. Take the corner of Turk and Taylor streets, a block up from the Warfield Theater music venue. Instead of deploying cops, transit officials removed street parking in 2014. Into the old Original Joe’s location, vacant since a 2007 fire, came the performance venue Piano Fight. With the street reimagined and the sidewalks activated, drug dealing went somewhere else—only for it all to come right back when businesses closed during the pandemic.

In a hint that her office is looking to repeat that success, Breed’s plan includes “street/sidewalk engineering” and the Department of Public Works will conduct “targeted and frequent cleanings.” But what lessons the mayor is taking from the past is unclear. 

Breed did not agree to be interviewed for this article. In an email exchange, Jeff Cretan, the mayor’s spokesperson, declined to address the Tenderloin cleanup initiatives others have tried.

“I can't speak to efforts before or challenges in the future,” he said. “What I can say is that we are taking what we learned during Covid, which is that no single agency can tackle a complex challenge alone.”

A “cyclical” phenomena  

Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, recalled crackdowns led by former District Attorney Arlo Smith in the early 1990s, calling Tenderloin offensives a “cyclical” phenomena closely linked to political fortunes.

“It’s driven by public frustration with the condition of the streets,” Gonzalez said. “There’s always this sudden effort or announcement that there’s going to be this law enforcement remedy because that’s always the first tool in the box.”

The cycle often begins when outrage over the status quo boils over, leading to critiques of the mayor or other public officials. The city may be in this stage now: According to several sources who have seen recent polling numbers, Breed’s favorability ratings have fallen from Covid-19 pandemic highs of more than 70% to percentages in the 50s.

Pressured by outside forces or genuinely sick of the untenable situation quo—or both—the mayor is driven to action. The media then reports the mayor is taking action. And the public, satisfied that the mayor is responsive, moves on—until something else, like the 11-year-old girl wearing a hijab being punched in the head on Sept. 29, steers the conversation back to the same ghastly old Tenderloin.

That attack was a transgression of the Tenderloin’s street code and a new low, even by the neighborhood’s blinkered standards, said Tracey Mixon, a formerly homeless Tenderloin drug dealer who now organizes for the Coalition on Homelessness. The incident prompted hundreds of residents to sign a Nov. 5 letter to the mayor decrying the neighborhood’s “containment zone” status. That letter in turn prompted Breed to attend a Dec. 10 “listening session” in which Tenderloin residents aired grievances about that attack and other incidents. The mayor’s emergency declaration followed a week later.

Children play at the 4th Annual People’s Holiday Tree Lighting in the Tenderloin on Dec. 15, 2021. | Sophie Bearman

Even those who disagreed with Breed’s technique couldn’t deny the obvious: The Tenderloin is bad and getting worse, and if not this, then what? 

“Without exaggerating, it is unlivable” right now, said Christy Shirilla, the director of community organizing at the Tenderloin Community Benefit District, which pressured Breed to call for the crackdown.

A neighborhood resident for seven years, Shirilla moved away after she was “attacked, unprovoked, for the third time in three years in the middle of the day,” she said in a recent interview. “At any given time of day, any day of the week, there are 250 drug dealers in the neighborhood.”

Shirilla added that the touts are becoming more brazen and more aggressive, physically “poking” passersby with an index finger if they decline to buy.

Once the city’s emergency declaration ends in March, as-yet undefined “long-term City resource allocations” will follow. But looming over this as well is the June recall election of Boudin, the progressive district attorney blamed for failing to incarcerate wrongdoers. If Boudin is removed and Breed installs a successor and the Tenderloin is still unlivable, history may repeat itself yet again, at the mayor’s expense. 

Chris Roberts ( is a contributing writer.