In San Francisco, nearly a dozen people die of drug overdoses every week—about 2,000 in all since 2020. The vast majority ingested fentanyl, the powerful and deadly synthetic that suppliers use to cut other narcotics.
These statistics are horrifying. But they’re not a popular topic of local conversation. And the city agencies spearheading drug policy often operate in open conflict with one another.
Residents of San Francisco are outspoken in their criticism of the government for crime, for homelessness, for a barren Downtown and for high rents, but less often for allowing neighbors to be killed by fentanyl.
Yet the people dying really are our neighbors. And not only the neighbors we see sleeping on sidewalks, as so many assume. Seventy percent of the city’s 620 fatal overdoses last year occurred indoors, according to data from the San Francisco Chief Medical Examiner’s Office.
Friends of friends, former coworkers, teammates, caretakers, loved ones—all gone without anybody learning what actually happened.
In the event that the crisis seems distant because some people believe it's unfolding only among groups they don’t associate with, we profile here a handful of the deceased to show a broad cross-section of the population that’s affected.
The Standard discovered these names in medical-examiner records pertaining to thousands of fentanyl victims.
In the Tenderloin, which accounts for one-fifth of the city’s overdose deaths, fentanyl can be difficult to escape.
Pam Coates, who was a Tenderloin tour guide remembered for her outgoing personality, devoted much of her later years to showcasing the neighborhood. But her proximity to its ubiquitous drug trade may have killed her, said her friend Geoffrey Grier.
Coates was a regular at the San Francisco Recovery Theatre, where many of the actors and musicians are recovering from addiction. After years of fighting for her own sobriety, Coates’ friends say they were surprised to hear that she had died from a fentanyl overdose on Nov. 12, 2021.
“We suspected what it might have been, but we couldn’t go to that [assumption] because she was in recovery,” Grier said. “She was fighting.”
Grier, a director and writer at the Recovery Theatre, said the conditions where Coates worked likely contributed to her death.
“She had escaped the Tenderloin. She was living in a nice place,” Grier said. “But she knew that she was working here. […] She said, ‘If anything happens, Geoffrey, just make sure you find out the truth.’”
The people fighting the crisis on the front lines often struggle to process the trauma they witness, and sometimes it kills them.
The death of Brian Edwards—a staunch advocate for homeless people who once lived on the streets himself—represents the toll of working to help a community where hope is in short supply.
Other advocates remember Edwards for his ability to find consensus amid political rancor and for his efforts in finding temporary shelter for homeless people during the pandemic.
Friends say he truly believed in San Francisco’s potential to solve its homeless crisis. But some of them wonder if the weight of his advocacy eventually led him to relapse.
Edwards died of fentanyl and methamphetamine poisoning on Nov. 3, 2021.
“The thing that really weighs on you is watching the system actively harm people,” said Kelley Cutler, a good friend and fellow advocate. “When Brian would see the cruel things that happen, it would hurt his heart.”
Edwards was known for using humor to diffuse difficult topics. He also wasn’t afraid of using expletives to get his point across.
“He was the guy who’d be at the podium and drop some f–bombs,” his friend Mary Kate Johnson said. “He was really skilled at translating among different audiences to humanize the situation on the street.”
Cutler said she and Edwards would spend nights together processing the trauma from working on the streets. She hopes that publishing the cause of his death will expand the public’s understanding of the crisis.
“People talk about overdoses as if it only happens in really extreme situations where someone has an extreme habit, or their life is a wreck and all these things,” Cutler said. “People are just trying to cope, and it can kill them.”
The death of Julien Hedquist, a supermodel who shined on the catwalk, shows how the stress of ordinary life affects people who may not seem so ordinary.
Despite a seemingly lavish lifestyle and being the face of big fashion brands such as Hugo Boss and Calvin Klein, Hedquist told the fashion industry platform Models.com that his lifelong struggle with anxiety led him to get hooked on sleeping pills.
“When you’re a model, there’s this projection put on you that you are special in some way that you have to embody on set,” he told the publication in 2016. “That pressure is sometimes hard to compartmentalize in your real life.”
Hedquist began modeling at the age of 16 after being recruited in a cafe in Stockholm. An interest in psychology eventually led him to study at the University of San Francisco before moving to New York to pursue fashion, according to Models.com.
In 2006, an overdose-induced coma temporarily paralyzed Hedquist. It took two years to recover, and in 2008 he went back to school to pursue a job managing musical acts, Vogue reported.
But glamour and fame kept calling and eventually lured him back to modeling. Hedquist wasn’t greeted with the same success and ultimately relapsed.
Helena Suric, Condé Nast’s global senior director, told Vogue that Hedquist overcame seemingly unconquerable obstacles “with dignity and also with humor.”
Records show Hedquist died of a heroin and fentanyl overdose in the San Francisco CQ hotel on Nov. 11, 2021—barely one week after Brian Edwards.
In the course of reporting this story, The Standard discovered a middle–aged man who had overcome devastating hardship to become a beacon of hope at a local grocery store.
We’re not sharing his name or any identifying details because his son asked us not to. When fentanyl took this man’s life, his son said he was unable to reveal the true nature of his father’s death to the rest of his family. Instead, he told people that his dad died of a heart attack.
At the same time, we want readers to know that fentanyl killed a hardworking grocery clerk who was beloved by the community for his smile and his dance moves, and whose family really isn’t responsible for this widespread silence and shame.
The Standard encountered the stories of many community members whose cause of death was never made public, as the bearers of that information feared disparaging the victim’s memory.
Local news stories often publicize the passing of our neighbors without disclosing the cause. And even close friends and family to the deceased aren’t always aware of how their loved ones died.
According to experts, this type of secrecy plays a role in allowing the lethal opioid to continue its wrath without recourse.
Among the thousands of lives lost in San Francisco’s fentanyl plague, most will go unattributed without faces to associate with the staggering death toll.
David Sjostedt can be reached at email@example.com