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City Hall paid safe drug use researcher $334 per hour to walk Tenderloin streets

San Francisco City Hall. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

San Francisco paid a researcher over $300 an hour to study the neighborhood impact of the Tenderloin Center safe consumption site, a project contract reveals.

The $500,000 study, released Wednesday by the Department of Public Health, found that public drug use and discarded paraphernalia is 19% lower around the center, which opened early this year, than it was in the same area in 2019.

But the study drew the ire of community members, who disputed its findings and complained about its cost.

The contract reveals the costs for lead researcher Alex Kral clocking in at $334.75 per hour, for 100 hours of work between April and July.

Kral, of the Research Triangle Institute (RTI), said the figure doesn’t represent the amount of money he made, which he says is much lower, but includes “indirect” costs. While he didn’t elaborate on what those were, it’s typical for organizations like RTI to bake some overhead costs into the line items for individual workers.

The $500,000 study involved two people walking each block of the Tenderloin a single time in 2018, 2019 and 2022, Kral said. The study also involved conducting interviews and creating an ethnography of the site.

Other hourly rates listed in the contract range from $58.43 to $281.88—six of the 10 researchers listed in the contract cost the city upward of $200 an hour. 

Kral himself has around 18 years of experience researching impoverished urban communities and drug policy.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, alongside Supervisor Catherine Stefani, speaks at a press conference outside of City Hall. | Chris Victorio for The Standard.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, for his part, questioned what he was supposed to do with the data provided in the research.

“It’s not entirely useful for policy makers and doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in DPH,” Mandelman said. “It strikes me that this [research] is a very expensive advertisement for safer consumption facilities.”

The Tenderloin Center is set for closure on Dec. 4, and the city is looking to open similar replacements.

Originally called the Tenderloin Linkage Center, the site opened in January as a low-barrier service hub to connect visitors to addiction treatment and housing. But it was later revealed the Department of Public Health was running the facility as a safe consumption site

Tenderloin Center visitors have praised the facility as a space to use drugs under the supervision of people equipped with opioid antidotes and oxygen machines, as well as basic hygiene services.

Overdoses that occurred outside of the center were 7% more likely to result in death, according to Kral’s report.

The research will continue until June 2023, the contract shows.

A DPH spokesperson said, “RTI was contracted to conduct a yearlong, on-the-ground study ​of the impacts​ of the TLC on clients and the neighborhood. The rates defined in the contract are for time and material. The implication that they are simply salaries is incorrect.”

The Standard understands the findings of the study are preliminary.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with additional context on the study costs and experience level of Alex Kral.