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Troubled Tenderloin needs a new state of emergency, funding infusion

An overhead shot of a San Francisco street with tents, scattered items, and three officers standing together casting long shadows.
San Francisco Police Department officers walk by a homeless tent encampment along Willow Street in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco in 2020. | Source: Nick Otto for The Standard

By Kate Robinson

The Tenderloin has been run through the wringer these past few years, consistently maligned as a containment zone, an open-air drug market, even a lost cause—and we have experienced real collective hardship with loss of lives and businesses, each further straining the strands of this community’s delicate fabric. 

What we truly are is a densely packed neighborhood with more than 300 small businesses and 3,500 children, families, seniors and single-room occupancy residents, speaking 112 languages. We are a living, breathing dichotomy, too: In an instant, you might experience revelatory belonging or unspeakable brutality. Humanity’s bleakest and brightest is concentrated here.

As the stewards of this incredible neighborhood, the Tenderloin Community Benefit District is calling on San Francisco and the state of California to do more for our community and its stakeholders. The recent infusion of Tenderloin Community Action Plan resources is important, but it’s a Band-Aid. To provide immediate relief and strategic thinking for a sustainable Tenderloin, the city and state should jointly take three actions: 

  1. Declare another state of emergency to build on recent successes in halting open-air drug sales.
  2. Provide dedicated city funding to take care of our parks.
  3. Address long-standing issues with graffiti, illegal dumping, street cleaning and trash. 

For 15 years, I’ve worked in the Tenderloin and cherished it. I encourage people to get to know the neighborhood I feel so privileged to serve, but it's getting harder. The Tenderloin contains multitudes, but many merely see a containment zone: a vulnerable community held hostage by drug trade violence too pervasive for one city to handle alone. Two summers ago, we were shaken when five neighborhood teens were shot in the street. Last Thanksgiving, back-to-back double shootings traumatized us. Then we had a New Year's mass shooting. These are examples of many headlines that leave lasting scars across this community.

Our public safety conversations include counterinsurgency terms like “clearing and holding” ground. The community shows up to protect our spaces, but the drug market effectively owns the night. The Drug Market Agency Coordination Center deserves credit for coordinating and bringing in local, state and federal law enforcement, treatment strategies and data collection. 

But constant “triaging” reflects a deficit mindset that keeps us in the emergency room. We need strategic resources that only the state can bring to this neighborhood to cover everything, everywhere, all at once.

We all know a transformative intervention is possible if it’s prioritized: Political will came together to make our city shine on the world stage during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. But the APEC legacy didn’t last, leaving persistent challenges and even aggravating harmful street conditions and business closures.

Why the inequities persist

People living only one mile from one another should not have such vastly different outcomes. Public health studies by ZIP code show the life expectancy for Tenderloin residents drops by 10 years from Nob Hill to Turk Street due to crime, drugs, poverty and health and safety issues. Privilege provides a buffer from trauma. Because the Tenderloin is the city’s landing pad for immigrants, many already carrying trauma, it’s our responsibility to not exacerbate but rather ameliorate troubles and elevate opportunity. We have never walked away from this purpose. 

Our three small parks in the Tenderloin are a lifeline for residents: welcoming, safe spaces for everyone that we have leveraged as critical community resource hubs. The gates of Tenderloin parks would not open in the morning or get locked again at night if not for the community benefit district park stewards. Our team manages neighborhood park operations all day, every day, picking up trash, needles, sex toys and weapons before kids come to play. 

We do this work without knowing whether funding will be renewed for the program every July. We’ve seen what’s possible with the recent conversion of U.N. Plaza, which the parks department creatively transformed with thin resources. Less than 4% of the Tenderloin is open space compared with 23% citywide. The same determination demonstrated at U.N. Plaza should apply to Tenderloin parks. Equity requires the city to lead this stewardship conversation.

The Tenderloin Community Benefit District has responded to 90% of public clean-up requests on 311 for more than two years, mitigating unsafe and unhealthy sidewalk hazards within 24 hours of each call. With only 16 staff members, our clean team consistently responds to 311 calls without city funding. Though SF Public Works received additional funding in the budget, Tenderloin residents have yet to feel any meaningful uptick in cleaning services. 

Our organization, funded by property assessments and private contributions, is supposed to supplement city services. But we persist in answering more calls amid the ever-growing piles of trash, feces and graffiti. We need all hands on deck to solve these intractable issues for the whole neighborhood. Cleanliness and safety are inextricably linked.

We know city departments are doing more with less, and the cuts will continue. But for too long, underinvestment has ruled this neighborhood, and now is not the time to cut funding. 

Equity requires us to show up the most when times are the toughest, and we've seen what this city is capable of where there's a will. Hope alone is not a strategy. We will continue to show up for Tenderloin residents who deserve self-determination and nighttime strolls just as much as people in other neighborhoods. 

We ask state and city officials to do the same and never give up on The Tenderloin. San Francisco's success relies upon it.

Robinson is the executive director of the Tenderloin Community Benefit District and has been a nonprofit leader for over 20 years. 

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