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Tenderloin Center clients warn of disaster as controversial drug site heads for closure

Kahlil Keith discusses his feelings about the impending closure of the Tenderloin Center, in the United Nations Plaza near the Civic Center, on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Clients of a drug consumption site called the Tenderloin Center are bracing for its closure as they warn of fallout in the surrounding neighborhood when they are bound again to use drugs in public spaces. 

The Tenderloin Center is scheduled to close for good on Sunday after operating for just shy of 11 months, and many people who use the facility said they are disturbed by the news. 

Several clients of the center, who gathered using drugs and bartering stolen items in a corner of United Nations Plaza on Tuesday morning, worried that the facility’s closure could disrupt their ability to acquire housing or other services. 

A sign stating "The TLC will close on Dec 4" in multiple languages, attached to a fence, with an urban background.
The Tenderloin Center, in the United Nations Plaza near the Civic Center, is closing on Dec. 4, 2022. Pedestrians walk into the center on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

A man named John H., who sat with a copy of The Stand by Stephen King and a glob of fentanyl on a piece of foil, predicted that shoplifting at the nearby Whole Foods—which recently cut hours due to “high theft”–would spike since the Tenderloin Center will no longer provide people with free meals.

“It’s going to get rowdy as fuck,” John said. “It didn’t eradicate the problem, but they were de-escalating a lot of manic and schizophrenic behavior in there.”

The facility, which opened as Tenderloin Linkage Center under an emergency order by Mayor London Breed, has drawn criticism for failing to link many clients to drug treatment—as its former name had promised. 

Kristin Peda poses for a portrait in the United Nations Plaza, near the Civic Center and the Tenderloin Center, on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. Locals who frequent the resource center, such as Peda, shared feelings of worry and anxiety about the impending closure of the Tenderloin Center. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Critics also asserted that the facility is a magnet for antisocial behavior, a long-standing issue in the Tenderloin neighborhood that Breed’s emergency order had set out to end.

Fewer than 1% of visits to the site have resulted in a “completed linkage” to behavioral health programs, while 281 requests for those services have gone unfulfilled. 

The Department of Public Health has struggled to meet its own treatment-on-demand mandate as nationwide behavioral health staffing shortages play out among local facilities. The Tenderloin Center cost the city $22 million this year. 

But clients who spoke to The Standard didn’t blame the center, instead citing their own aversion to treatment. A 44-year-old Santa Rosa native named Kahlil Keith, who had holes in his socks and a cast around his arm, wept as he described how difficult it is to kick a meth habit. 

Kahlil Keith wept as he discussed his feelings about the impending closure of the Tenderloin Center in United Nations Plaza on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Keith said that drug treatment scares him because he uses weed to calm the psychosis caused by his bipolar depression.  

“I want to stop bad as fuck,” Keith said in between taking puffs from a meth pipe. “I need help. I’m living in third-world conditions.” 

Keith decried the center’s closure, praising it as a safe place to wash his wounds and use drugs without fear of dying. 

“It saves lives. It saves lives. It saves lives,” Keith yelled. “It’s going to get ugly. A lot of people are going to die; it’s going to be flooded out here with more bullshit.”

Staff at the site have reversed 320 overdoses while providing 99,039 meals, 8,956 showers, 3,496 loads of laundry as well as 1,528 completed referrals to housing and shelter.

Jim, who declined to give a last name, reads a newspaper outside of the Tenderloin Linkage Center, in the United Nations (UN) plaza, near the Civic Center, on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

The city has plans to open new facilities called Wellness Hubs that will mirror and build upon services offered at the Tenderloin Center; the health department is aiming to open the first such facility in early 2023. The Department of Homelessness says it has ramped up outreach in anticipation of the center’s closing to ensure that clients receive a “direct handoff” to other programs. 

The health department has indicated that the first Wellness Hub will likely not be operated in the Tenderloin.  

“When they close this, how are they going to like it when it comes into your neighborhoods,” John said. “This is where they can reach the most amount of people.” 

David Sjostedt can be reached at