In April, California Gov. Gavin Newsom made a surprise visit to San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin neighborhood, the epicenter of the city’s drug and homelessness crises. No major media outlets were alerted before the visit, which also included Mayor London Breed’s chief of staff and Attorney General Rob Bonta. But a man with a Twitter persona called JJ Smith was hot on the case.
Cellphone in hand, video rolling, the 53-year-old local Twitter personality confronted the governor on the street. “Hey Gavin, tell me what you are going to do about the fentanyl epidemic?” he yelled.
Newsom, apparently miffed at being found out by a local paparazzi, replied tartly, “You tell me what we’re going to do.”
The encounter was viewed over 1 million times on Twitter and cited by numerous local and national news outlets as the only visual evidence of Newsom’s visit to the Tenderloin that day. Two days later, Newsom announced he would deploy the California Highway Patrol to help San Francisco police as officers crack down on the neighborhood’s visible drug markets.
To his fans, JJ Smith—not his real name—was a breath of authenticity chronicling the harsh truths and human stories of the Tenderloin and a reality check on the grandiose plans of politicians, like Newsom and Breed, who vow to solve the neighborhood’s issues.
Over the past nine months, he had been seemingly everywhere in the Tenderloin, reviving people from the brink of drug-induced death and once barreling into a burning building while recording it all for his 12,500 Twitter followers.
His camera had landed him on national media outlets, including Fox and CBS. But despite his rapid ascent to local internet fame, and his penchant for appearing on camera in his own posts, the documentarian was hesitant to tell his own story.
After The Standard began reporting a story looking into his background and activities, his Twitter account disappeared.
In a message Friday, when the account vanished, he said that he was deleting his account to protect his family and was concerned that Honduran drug dealers would harm him. The Standard has verified his legal name but is refraining from publishing it at this time out of concern for possible retaliation against his family.
Since he joined Twitter, the 53-year-old videographer’s provocative tactics had made him a lightning rod for critics who said he exploited people at their worst moments and sometimes published information without verifying its accuracy.
Sara Shortt, director of public policy at a homelessness nonprofit called HomeRise, said she believed that the videos may have had a traumatizing effect on some of his subjects.
“Even if you believe this is a means to an end, using vulnerable people as fodder in that battle is inexcusable, frankly,” Shortt said.
But his content was also revered by many in the Tenderloin. On a recent Friday, The Standard accompanied him on a walk around the neighborhood where “JJ Smith” was heartily greeted by neighbors, business owners and homeless people alike.
Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, called him a hero and said that he worried about his safety as his online presence grew. Shaw credited him with taking a video that recently incentivized the San Francisco Police Department to step up enforcement of drug-dealing on Golden Gate Avenue at night.
“Since JJ’s video, that whole area is the only part of the neighborhood that’s seen a dramatic improvement,” Shaw said. “He’s just an incredible asset to the neighborhood.”
Asked about the criticism, the videographer said that he was merely broadcasting issues that he witnessed on a daily basis and that he tried to help many of his interviewees obtain resources and treatment.
“I’m not trying to exploit anyone,” he said in the caption of his first JJ Smith Twitter video in October 2022. “I’m going to show you the hard truth.”
On a near-weekly basis, he posted videos of corpses covered by sheets as they were wheeled into a medical examiner’s van. Often, he would post footage of people on the brink of death on a sidewalk as bystanders attempted to revive them from apparent overdoses. Sometimes, he himself performed the resuscitations.
Several of his interviewees, from foster youth to the formerly incarcerated, appeared regularly in his video clips as he tried to convince them to enter treatment. He said he captured the lives of the city’s most vulnerable residents in hopes of inspiring action.
The videographer said he retired from his career as a chef last year and he was convinced by recovery activist Tom Wolf to begin posting the videos to Twitter in October 2022. He said he didn’t make money from the account.
Wolf said that he first encountered the man who would become “JJ Smith” while recording a podcast in the Tenderloin. And from that point on, Wolf said, he would consistently see him on Ellis Street.
“I knew if I went up to Ellis, there was a friendly face,” Wolf said.
Wolf, who experienced homelessness himself in 2015, said that he has deliberately decided not to take videos of people on the street, but he believes that the JJ Smith videos have helped elicit action in San Francisco.
“I used to be homeless on the street, and I wouldn't necessarily want someone coming up and putting the camera on me,” Wolf said. “But at the same time [...] if we didn’t start doing this, I don’t think the direction would’ve changed as quickly as it has in San Francisco.”
The city has recently stepped up its enforcement against drug-dealing as well as public intoxication, though early reports of those efforts haven’t indicated an increase in drug treatment admissions. Seventy-four people died of overdoses in San Francisco in May, and the city is on track for a historic number of drug deaths this year, according to preliminary data from the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office.
The videographer said he grew up in Potrero Hill and often visited his grandfather in the Tenderloin neighborhood before moving there himself. He recounted losing dozens of friends and neighbors to drug use over the past few years.
He said he created his Twitter persona JJ Smith by combining the names of a young man and a woman who died of overdoses.
Last September, just a block from where he had visited his grandfather as a child, he said he witnessed his brother buying the drugs that led him to fatally overdose. The Standard was able to verify their familial connection.
The videographer said that the stories of people such as his brother, as well as the two young people named JJ and Smith, are what drove him to continue with his form of activism.
“This story is not about me; I’m nobody,” he said. “It’s about all these people. They need the help.”
In his videos, the videographer was frequently critical of so-called “harm-reduction” approaches, which focus on mitigating the negative health effects of drug use and reducing stigmatization; he argued that many harm-reduction groups don’t provide people with information on how to escape addiction.
He had also targeted a local nonprofit that organizes for the rights of homeless people called the Coalition on Homelessness, alleging that the organization doesn’t do enough to help people escape homelessness.
After a woman threw a brick in the direction of city officials during an outdoor meeting at United Nations Plaza in May, he alleged on Twitter that she had been pushed to do so by the Coalition on Homelessness.
But after he was shown evidence that ran contrary to his account of the incident, he acknowledged to The Standard in a May interview that he was incorrect in publishing that accusation.
“This one slipped by me,” he said. He did not, however, put up a correction or retraction.
Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, told The Standard that she was taken off guard by the accusations. She was critical of the content on his Twitter account.
“People get pretty triggered by poverty. There seems to be this tendency to blame people who are trying to address the issue,” Friedenbach said. “I tried to not pay too much attention. […] The way he treats people is really dehumanizing.”
The videographer said he’s critical of groups that he believes are merely parachuting into the neighborhood to serve their own interests. And he believes the city needs to treat homeless people with more respect during outreach interventions.
“It’s about the way you come at people,” he said. “You have to come speak to them every day.”
By his own count, he brought over a dozen people into treatment for drug addiction, and several people from the neighborhood told The Standard that he has made a positive impact, guiding people into treatment and walking children to and from school.
He said that while he knows he doesn’t have the answers to all of the city’s problems, he believes that the city’s efforts aren’t consistent enough to be effective.
“I don’t know what the solution is, but something’s got to change,” he said. “I’m not only doing it for my brother anymore.”
As his online presence grew, the father of four said that his family became increasingly concerned about his safety.
He said that on Aug. 3, 2022, a man cracked his skull with a machete after he had asked him to move away from a playground where he believed he was selling drugs. He had surgery to repair the damage to his skull—with pictures of his sutures posted online—and he said the incident led his family members to plead with him to keep a lower profile. He says he still regularly encounters the man who attacked him.
The Standard was unable to confirm the details of the incident with San Francisco police.
“My wife and my kids don’t want to get in the car with me sometimes because they’re afraid something might happen to them,” said the videographer, whose youngest child is 3 years old.
That’s not the only scuffle he’s had in the neighborhood. In July 2022, he came to the defense of a homeless person who was being asked to move by workers of a local organization called the Tenderloin Merchants and Property Owners Association. In a video seen by The Standard, he confronted the group’s executive director, Rene Colorado, and the two exchanged words.
The videographer said the altercation became physical off camera.
He said that Colorado placed him in a headlock and stole his phone. Colorado said that the Twitter star interfered with his group’s operations and threatened them with a gun. Neither of these claims are evident in a video of the incident seen by The Standard. Police arrested the videographer under suspicion of assault, but he was never charged.
According to court records, the videographer was previously arrested under suspicion of dealing drugs but the district attorney never sought charges against him. He told The Standard that he was associated with the wrong person at the wrong time, and that incident is now behind him.
Although the videographer was never one to stray from controversy online, often engaging in flippant battles with his critics, in person, as he strolled through the neighborhood on a recent Friday afternoon, he was greeted by smiles and handshakes on every block.
He had said that he hoped to one day create a drug treatment nonprofit, or something of the sort, of his own. But in a phone call Friday with The Standard, he seemed less sure of where his activism would take him, or if he would return to Twitter at all.
“I’m out of this,” he said. “It’s over with for me; all of this is behind me.”
Later Friday, the Twitter account was reactivated.
David Sjostedt can be reached at email@example.com