After the mayor’s office threw cold water on a plan to open a network of new safe consumption sites in San Francisco, city elected officials plan to hold hearings and call for $5.5 million to be set aside to open the hubs.
Supervisors Hillary Ronen, Ahsha Safaí, Dean Preston, Matt Dorsey, Myrna Melgar, Connie Chan, Aaron Peskin and Board President Shamann Walton called for a hearing to ask the city why it has canceled or delayed plans to open the sites, dubbed “Wellness Hubs,” and called on Mayor London Breed to put aside $5.5 million in the budget to fund the sites in the near term.
“We have a crisis in the streets of this city,” Supervisor Hillary Ronen said at a rally outside City Hall on Tuesday. “We don’t want our streets to be a place where people are using drugs. We need to get people off the streets and inside.”
The supervisors also plan to pass a resolution calling for a portion of funds from opioid settlements to fund the Wellness Hubs. According to Ronen’s office, there are enough votes on the board in favor of the resolution to pass it.
The Wellness Hubs, first introduced in September as part of the health department’s Overdose Prevention Plan, were initially envisioned as health centers that include both supervised drug consumption and access to other services.
The Department of Public Health had drawn up a plan to offer three tiers of sites over the next two and a half years in the Tenderloin, SoMa, the Mission, the Castro, the Haight and the Bayview neighborhoods; all sites would offer supervised drug consumption.
The health department elaborated on those plans in a statement to The Standard last Tuesday, while acknowledging legal and logistical barriers. Within hours, however, the Mayor’s Office asserted outright that the plan was not happening.
Safe consumption sites, sometimes called overdose prevention sites, are illegal at the state and federal levels. The city has experimented with the idea already, however, having allowed supervised drug use at the Tenderloin Center this year.
The Tenderloin Center closed last week after 11 months of operations, during which staff reversed 332 overdoses and linked 1,529 clients to housing or shelter, according to the city. Still, the site attracted controversy for connecting a low percentage of clients to drug treatment.
"We are waiting for the Department of Justice to provide legal guidelines on opening an overdose prevention program," said the Mayor's Office in a statement. "Funding for these sites is not the issue; it’s the legal barriers."
In response to legal concerns around the Wellness Hubs, Ronen said she doesn’t understand why the city is suddenly concerned about a legal backlash after nearly a year of the Tenderloin Center’s operation.
“Why was that OK three weeks ago and it’s not OK today?” Ronen asked. “When life and death are at stake, I think we need to take risks sometimes.”
In a statement to The Standard, Jen Kwart, spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office, said it would support a plan funded entirely by nonprofits and no city money as it waits for guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice.
The Department of Justice is currently litigating a case involving a Philadelphia nonprofit, called Safehouse, that may carve out a legal path for safe consumption sites to operate. The justice department has repeatedly asked the court for more time to negotiate the details.
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