Skip to main content

Kids are selling drugs and stolen goods in the Tenderloin. It’s an open secret on the city’s roughest blocks

Crowded street scene at night with people walking and standing, some with backpacks and one wearing a mask.
A boy wearing a blue backpack and black jeans maneuvers in an unofficial night market outside Arsicault Bakery on McAllister Street in the Tenderloin on Feb. 15. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Carrying a 12-pack of toilet paper under his arm, an adolescent boy yelled as he hopped through a crowd of people smoking fentanyl and selling stolen goods after dark near the corner of Seventh and Market streets in the Tenderloin. 

“It’s popping out here,” he exclaimed in a squeaky voice, plopping the rolls of toilet paper on the sidewalk for sale. Though the boy stood no more than 5 feet tall, nobody in the crowd seemed to question what a middle-school-age child was doing alone at night in San Francisco’s most troubled neighborhood. 

This corner of Market Street, opposite United Nations Plaza, has long been the epicenter of San Francisco’s drug and homelessness crises. Hundreds of people have overdosed within a few block radius of this spot over the past five years, more than anywhere else in the city. Since last June, police have made over 2,300 drug-related arrests in the surrounding neighborhood. 

But little has been said about the existence of children as young as 13 years old among the dealers and street vendors. Their presence in the plaza is an open secret among city officials, nonprofit workers and inhabitants of the area, according to The Standard’s own on-the-ground reporting. 

A large group of people gathered at night on an urban street, some with bags, near buildings with lit windows.
People gather at an unofficial night market outside Arsicault Bakery on McAllister Street in San Francisco. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Some kids are brought to the Tenderloin after dark by their parents, who are buying or selling stolen goods. Others are going at it alone—hawking everything from makeup to toilet paper, which is often stolen—or even dealing drugs.

Data from the San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department shows police arrested 57 youths between the ages of 13 and 17 on suspicion of dealing drugs between August 2023 and Feb. 8. The department said that 55 of the 57 teens came from outside of the city. 

The department declined to provide further data on these children’s cities of origin, their ages, demographic backgrounds or the locations of their arrests. Court records about cases involving juveniles are not normally available to the public, and requests to view redacted copies were denied.

Assorted snacks and candy scattered on the ground, including Pop-Tarts, with a person's shoe visible.
A man sells candy at an unofficial night market in San Francisco. Candy is one of the most popular items for sale at the market. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

But anecdotally, nonprofit workers and city employees said they’ve seen an uptick in young people dealing drugs and stolen goods in the Tenderloin since the pandemic began in 2020. 

“Sometimes you see groups of kids,” said Cheryl Thornton, an urban health worker who mentors youth in the Bayview and Potrero Hill neighborhoods. “I see them all around the Tenderloin.”

The Public Defender’s Office said many juveniles arrested in the city are victims of human trafficking, extreme poverty, abandonment and violence.

San Francisco’s chief juvenile probation officer, Katy Miller, said most youth accused of selling drugs are immigrants from Central America who arrived in the U.S. without their parents.

“They’re just young Black kids and young Hispanic kids,” Thornton said. “So nobody really cares.” 

‘In Frisco, you gotta make it somehow’ 

One 17-year-old, who was selling stolen jars of honey in U.N. Plaza last month, said he moved to the city from Fresno. He refused to give his name but said he started hustling on the streets after he met a group of other teens who frequented the plaza.

“It’s poverty,” he said, explaining why he works at the illegal market. “It’s classism. The mother of all isms.” 

People casting shadows on a blue-lit building wall at night; some are seated, one stands using a phone.
People routinely congregate outside the Asian Art Museum near U.N. Plaza, using and dealing drugs. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

“In Frisco, you gotta make it somehow,” said an 18-year-old vendor, who also spoke on condition of anonymity and said he had been selling stolen goods in the plaza for roughly two years. 

“I told myself I would stop when I turned 18,” he said, explaining he became involved in the market because it was something his friends did. He said he thought he could land a legitimate job when he came of age, but said he’s only managed to find casual shifts as a roofer. 

A few blocks away, a 16-year-old boy from Honduras was selling fentanyl and methamphetamine on Eddy Street. He told The Standard he arrived in the city alone two years ago but refused to give many details about what led him to deal drugs. 

A woman who identified herself only as Star, who said she is paid to keep dealers company and help them sell drugs, told The Standard that teens like the Honduran boy would rather not be on the corner.

“They’d rather be back home with their parents,” she said. “They don’t want to be out here.” 

A person in a hoodie is lighting a pipe on a city street at night, surrounded by others in winter attire.
A person smokes drugs at a night market near UN Plaza in San Francisco on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024. There are children in U.N. Plaza in San Francisco in the evening hours selling drugs and according to the City, and there have been over 50 kids that have been taken in custody due to the illicit activity. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

The boy later said he didn’t like selling drugs but believed his options were limited. He said he came from a small ranch town in the middle of Honduras two years ago but didn’t disclose what prompted his move to the Bay Area.

“I’m just out here so I can make a living,” he said. “The streets are tough for people like us.” 

The boy and other dealers were eating baleadas—a Honduran dish consisting of a flour tortilla filled with refried beans and egg—when a man approached with an offer of Nike sneakers on sale for $50. The group took a look at the merchandise and decided to pass.

"They're too big," the boy said of the size 10.5 shoes. "These could fit a giant's foot."

Children arrested in San Francisco

At the end of December, a total of 418 youth were under the supervision of the Juvenile Probation Department—the most since October 2020. Sixty youths had active warrants for their arrest on Dec. 31, while another 24 were in custody. 

Young people from outside of San Francisco accounted for 36% of all juveniles arrested in the city, and Bayview-Hunters Point was the neighborhood of origin for 15% of the department’s total cases as of Dec. 31. 

Forty-eight of the department’s cases are under the age of 15, according to data from December. 

A bustling night scene outside 'Plaza Snacks & Deli', with a crowd of people on the sidewalk.
People peruse an unofficial night market on the corner of Charles J. Brenham Place and McAllister Street. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Although the juvenile probation department said many of the youths arrested for selling drugs in the city were born outside the United States, vendors said many children and teens selling stolen items in U.N. Plaza grew up in the Bay Area or elsewhere in California. 

However, data on this group is scant because the Department of Public Works, which enforces rules against illegal street vending, usually doesn’t track the ages of people it cites.

City Hall staffers have offered little detail on the issue of juveniles and illegal vending and drug dealing. The Standard attempted to interview an outreach worker with intimate knowledge about the children and teens working illicit jobs in and around U.N. Plaza, but the interview request was denied by the Department of Public Health. The department did not provide a reason for declining the request. 

Joi Jackson-Morgan, executive director of the 3rd Street Youth Center & Clinic and a native of the Bayview neighborhood, said kids from her neighborhood have historically gathered in the city’s downtown. But she said because entry-level retail jobs have all but disappeared, more youth are turning to alternative, sometimes illegal, sources of income. 

“It’s definitely gone from a space where you hang out during the summer, and you saw a lot of people who were working downtown,” Jackson-Morgan said. “Now, it’s definitely changed. … A lot of them are involved in risky behaviors.” 

Jackson-Morgan said she worries more kids could fall down this path when school lets out for the summer. She urged the city to fund more summer camps, internships and other activities to keep children busy. 

“This summer … we need to figure it out. What are we going to do?” she said. “We need to bring back the trades. … We need to start younger.” 

In a statement, Mayor London Breed’s office said it was aware of the issue and pointed to programs she’s implemented, such as the Street Violence Intervention Program, the School Crisis Support effort, Opportunities for All and the Student Success Fund.

‘Scared shitless’

Some drug users in the Tenderloin told The Standard they refuse to do business with the children. Michael Bohlke, a 27-year-old homeless man who said he was first arrested for dealing meth and heroin at the age of 13 in Idaho, said he tries to “set them straight.”

“I know what it’s like to sit there, scared shitless,” Bohlke said. “I was shaking at my knees the first time I sold.” 

A bearded man carrying a red bag stands before a building at night, arms crossed, deep in thought.
Michael Bohkle, from Idaho, said he refuses to purchase drugs from younger dealers. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Bohlke said he never had a chance to pursue a normal life because both of his parents were dealers. 

“I didn’t go to school; I went to work,” Bohlke said. “I thought it was normal. It was how I was brought up.”

Bohlke started using stimulants to keep up with the demands of his job, he said, eventually ending up in prison and then homeless and addicted to drugs.

The Standard witnessed one teenager at the plaza’s night market beat an elderly man on Feb. 15. The teen narrowly missed a kick to the man’s head as he lay on the ground before a bystander broke up the assault. It’s unclear what prompted the altercation. Police said they have no record of the incident. 

Sheryl Davis, head of the city’s Human Rights Commission, said she’s heard from some nonprofit partners that children as young as 8 are selling drugs or stolen goods on the street. However, youth under the age of 12 aren’t arrested and are often placed in foster programs or enrolled with other services.

“Kids are growing up a lot faster,” Davis said. “When they don’t want to be in school or they don’t want to be home, where do they go?”

She said the city needs to step up its efforts to engage youths in career opportunities at a younger age before they get themselves into more serious, less reparable trouble. 

“We have young people that are trying to make money,” Davis said. “We have to think about how we’re going to help them do that in ways that are legal and safe.”