A family from New Jersey, Bay Area day trippers and visitors from the U.K., Germany and Italy were among the dozen or so people gathered around the giant rainbow flag in the center of the Castro to embark on a walking tour of one of the city’s most iconic neighborhoods.
Kathy Amendola, the owner of Cruisin’ the Castro Walking Tour, has been giving these tours for close to two decades, infusing local LGBTQ history with a brash East Coast delivery.
Recently, though, she’s had to limit her tours to three days a week because of what she said are individuals living in the neighborhood with unaddressed drug or mental health issues that have threatened her and her customers.
While giving a biography about Harvey Milk in the neighborhood’s Muni station, her eyes flitted to a man up the stairs tearing posters off telephone poles and ranting and raving in circles. On the escalator up to street level, she flashed the pepper spray she keeps in her bag for protection.
“We’re a nice, compassionate community, but they have pushed our limits,” Amendola said. “This is inhumane for us and for them. That’s why a lot of businesses are closing because we are traumatized.”
Complaints about the declining street conditions spurred the Castro Merchants Association to send a letter to city leaders calling for 35 designated beds for the neighborhood to provide treatment to the troubled individuals, a comprehensive plan for those who decline services and a level of accountability through clear reporting on those who have been offered shelter or services, as well as successful placements.
Castro Merchants Association President Dave Karraker raised the potential of withholding certain city fees or taxes to put pressure on city officials as a form of civil disobedience, a move that has grabbed headlines and the attention of similarly minded groups in the city.
“We hope it would never in anybody's imagination come to that, but the outpouring of support we’ve seen across the city says to us people are at the end of their rope and there’s a general feeling of hopelessness around the subject,” Karraker said.
Karraker is aiming to use the letter—and the city-wide frustration from the inability to solve the issue—to bring together a coalition of merchant associations, businesses, trade groups, community organizations and private citizens to find solutions.
“Our goal with all of this is to get these people help because what the city is doing right now to our eyes isn't solving the problem,” Karraker said. “Our hope is to see that there is actually a citywide plan, and if not, then maybe we can help facilitate one.”
Next on the agenda is a planned town hall meeting in October with city leaders in public health and homelessness to hear firsthand how they are trying to address the issue and offer suggestions to help.
Officials at the Departments of Public Health and Homelessness and Supportive Housing responded to the Castro merchants’ letter, detailing current efforts to expand the city’s number of treatment beds. Specific plans to address the demands laid out by the Castro Merchants Association, however, were in short supply.
"One of the big things we know is that 50% of the people that are offered services don't take it for whatever reason, so how are we addressing that specifically?” Karraker said.
Merchant groups across the city sympathized with the plight of business owners in the Castro, reporting similar issues in their own communities. Few explicitly signed on to the pledge to withhold payments to the city, however.
Henry Karnilowicz, vice president of the South of Market Business Association, said any major changes are predicated on businesses’ ability to band together to advocate for solutions.
“Small business owners are all mainly busy running their businesses. They may moan and groan, but trying to get them to organize and protest is another story,” Karnilowicz said. “I applaud the Castro merchants and what they’re doing and we plan to talk more to the association about how to support them.”
Karnilowicz, who also serves as co-chair of SFPD’s Small Business Advisory Forum, said that in his experience, conversations with city departments like the police, district attorney or public works devolve into blame-shifting and buck-passing.
“Oftentimes, it’s like talking to a brick wall,” Karnilowicz said.
Ryen Moztek, president of the Mission Merchants Association, said the situation in the Mission has become dire. Moztek pointed to a recent fatal stabbing at the 24th Street Mission BART station as an example and said the organization’s board members are in discussions about how to support the Castro merchants and their coalition.
“Sometimes drastic measures are needed to grab attention,” Moztek said. “I believe that the Castro merchants are very sensitive to mental illness and drug addiction, it’s not like they’re saying to hell with them, it’s our businesses or bust.”
Moztek said the lack of observable action from officials leads to situations where troubled individuals are hurt or hurt others. He mentioned a recent experience he witnessed where a mentally ill person pulled his pants down and masturbated in front of a group, who responded by pushing him and spraying him with pepper spray.
“Everyone lost there,” Moztek said. “If I see someone at the middle of the road, and with their clothes barely hanging on that’s confused about where they are, that’s a crisis that needs to be addressed.”
Masood Samereie, a realtor in the Castro and the president of the SF Council of District Merchants Associations, said the call for civil disobedience is “extreme” but admits issues around street conditions have clearly worsened.
Over the past three years, Samereie said he’s had furniture thrown at him, has been attacked by a person wielding a stick and in one case has been pepper sprayed by an individual on the street.
Edward Siu, chairman of the Chinatown Merchants United Association, said he completely agrees with the stance taken by the Castro merchants and voiced frustrations in having to struggle with street issues more than two years into a pandemic.
“A lot of merchants are blaming it on the city and on the state,” Siu said. “Why are we paying taxes when we’re not being protected or getting any of the benefits?”
Many of the troubled individuals in the Castro are well-known to community members, who have maintained a running list for years of around 20 to 25 individuals who have been perennial problems.
It struck some critics as ironic that the Castro—historically a neighborhood of refuge—is seeking to remove some of the most marginalized San Franciscans. But Karraker disagrees with that view.
“It’s terrifically inhumane to let people suffer this way and have their lives continuously at risk,” Karraker said. “People have become numb to it, and once people become numb to a crisis situation like this you’re heading down a very dangerous path.”
Kevin Truong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org