When newly appointed District Attorney Brooke Jenkins was choosing a backdrop for one of her first major press conferences about open-air drug dealing, she settled on the Phoenix Hotel on Eddy Street in the Tenderloin.
“To actually walk down the street and have to navigate those who are selling and those who are using… it’s a very different experience, and so it’s something that I am committed to improving,” Jenkins said at the July 12 press conference.
Down the block, a little after 3 p.m. most days, a procession of seniors living at the Eastern Park Apartments make their way down the elevator into a parking lot that has become an impromptu community space because the sidewalks are clogged with drug dealers and their customers, according to tenants.
Groups of Russian and Chinese-speaking residents pull up a row of office chairs or take a load off on their walkers, strolling the asphalt to get some needed exercise and fresh air.
The 201-unit affordable apartment complex at 711 Eddy St. has been a home for low-income seniors since 1979. Many tenants—the majority of whom don’t speak English as a first language—report living out their golden years with a fierce loyalty to the home they’ve fostered.
In recent months, however, the residents say they’ve felt trapped by what they call unsafe—and frankly frightening—conditions on the sidewalks outside the building. Isolation due to the pandemic was intensified by what they describe as open drug dealing, urine and defecation clogging up the walkways, and intoxicated or mentally ill people who have threatened and assaulted residents and staff.
Raisa Verkhoshanskaya, who has lived in the building since 1994, said the conditions are as bad as she’s ever seen them. They’ve meant that she and her friends have curtailed regular walks to the local farmers’ market and the nearby Opera Plaza.
“I’m afraid,” Verkhoshanskaya said. “In the evening, we cannot go out. We cannot walk. We can only sit in the building or in the small garage.”
From a hallway outside of her apartment, Verkhoshanskaya observes the underground economy of narcotic sales from above, noting the way that dealers communicate with nearby cars, customers and hidden stashes of drugs.
An incident last September where a security guard was threatened with a knife spurred the building’s owner, Sequoia Living, to send a letter to city officials, including San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott and Mayor London Breed, requesting additional police presence to address “the climate of fear and intimidation.”
The letter detailed the problem with drug activity in front of the building and steps taken by Sequoia, including additional power washing, lighting and security cameras.
In February, Sequoia passed over management of the building to EAH Housing, which operates a number of low-income senior care homes across California and Hawaii. Sara McVey, the CEO of Sequoia Living, said that the decision was made because of EAH’s experience dealing with the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program.
McVey said that the company received little response to its letter. She said Sequoia is working with EAH on a larger plan to address the issue, but declined to provide additional details.
“You do have this expectation that [city officials] are going to realize the importance of it, but it doesn’t always work that way,” McVey said.
Eleazar Socoi, the building’s facility manager, said the building has always seen some issues around homelessness, but the problem of open drug dealing took a turn for the worse this year. While the building was undergoing renovations, Socoi reported issues with people attempting to trespass onto the property or using scaffolding and construction materials as a shield for illicit activity.
“We started to report the issues to the police, but sadly they said they couldn’t do much about it,” Socoi said. The police department didn’t reply to a request for comment for this story.
The conditions have created other risks for residents, including forcing them to walk in the street to avoid the drug activity blocking the sidewalk. Residents also say caretakers have complained about the discomfort they feel in trying to access the apartment building.
Alina Bekkerman, the granddaughter of tenant Alla Chechelnitskaya, has taken on an informal role advocating for residents and translating their complaints.
“They really do need to have a voice. These folks who are in their 70s, 80s and 90s just want to live in peace,” Bekkerman said.
Chechelnitskaya said the people outside the building are sometimes aggressive and have pushed her around when walking to and from her home. When Chechelnitskaya’s daughter—who is Bekkerman’s mother—asked the assembled drug dealers to take their activities elsewhere, a person threw a bottle at her head.
While calling them a “serious nuisance,” Carlos Mendoza, the facility’s property manager, said the street issues are largely out of his hands, particularly with the lack of police response. He largely attributed the complaints with conditions to a small segment of mainly Russian-speaking residents.
But a letter to the city’s Human Rights Commission in May complaining about the conditions had 25 undersigned tenants representing a variety of residents. A meeting of more than a dozen of the building’s Chinese-speaking residents raised a litany of similar complaints.
Yuan Zhu, affectionately called “Auntie Zhu” by her neighbors, said she has lived in the building for seven years and remembered being initially struck by the beauty of the surrounding environment. That isn’t the case anymore.
“I am one of the younger ones among the elderly, and I can walk,” Zhu said through a translator. “How do you expect those with a walking stick or a walker to pass through them? Should everyone who is too afraid to go outside just stay in?”
Yu-Ling Chan, a 13-year resident, said she only goes outside once or twice a month for necessary supplies. But even those limited outings tend to be terrifying, with Chan saying she’d been chased in the neighborhood.
Chan issued a direct plea to city leaders to come to the 711 Eddy to listen and address their concerns.
“It’s been a long time, and the clock is ticking,” Chan said. “If we were hit because we rushed into the road, who should be responsible for that?”
Kevin Truong can be reached at [email protected]