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City-Funded Survey Says the Tenderloin Center Improved the Neighborhood. Many Are Unconvinced

Written by David SjostedtPublished Nov. 17, 2022 • 9:00am
Pedestrians stroll UN Plaza in the Civic Center of San Francisco, Calif. on June 28, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

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A new report claims that neighborhood conditions around a safe consumption site called the Tenderloin Center have improved since it opened in January, contradicting the experience of neighbors who have complained about deteriorating street conditions.

The Department of Public Health paid a team of researchers $500,000 to determine the impact of the Tenderloin Center, formerly called the Linkage Center, on the surrounding neighborhood.

The study, which involved researchers observing drug issues in the area and other analysis, determined that public drug use and discarded paraphernalia was 19% lower than it was in 2019. The research comes out as the center heads for closure on Dec. 4 and the health department scrambles to spin up replacements for the site. 

The report’s findings drew strong reactions from some who called into question the validity of the study. 

“That report is such utter nonsense,” said Randy Shaw, CEO of Tenderloin Housing Clinic. ​​”The city spent $500,000 to dispute what everyone familiar in the area knows to be true–the center has had an incredibly negative impact.”

The controversial facility, which opened as part of Mayor London Breed’s Tenderloin Emergency Declaration, quickly drew criticism for allowing drug use and purportedly causing disruption in the area. 

Emergency call data obtained by The Standard shows a spike in emergency calls to the stretch of Market Street in front of the Tenderloin Center since its January opening. Calls to the one-block span in front of the Tenderloin Center increased by 126% this year—with an average of six calls per day—as compared to just an 11% increase citywide.

Part of that surge is likely attributable to a Health Department policy dictating that paramedics are called for overdoses at the Tenderloin Center, said Alex Kral, a drug policy researcher who led the Tenderloin Center study. 

Kral acknowledged that his study of the Tenderloin Center’s neighborhood impact has its shortcomings: The data on drug issues in the area was collected by two people who walked each block of the Tenderloin only a single time in 2018, 2019 and 2022. 

But he dismissed criticism of the study’s validity, saying that when the center closes, it will become evident that it wasn’t contributing to the city’s drug crisis. 

“People don’t remember what was happening in that area in 2018 or 2019,” Kral said. “I think it’s a mistake to place [blame for] all the social ills of the neighborhood on that site.”

The city has spent $22 million on the site this year, according to director of the Tenderloin Center Krista Gaeta. 

Originally called the Tenderloin Linkage Center, the city first described the site as a low-barrier service hub to link guests to addiction treatment and housing. But it quickly morphed into a de facto safe consumption site, with illegal drug use freely permitted. Within months, the city quietly changed its name to the Tenderloin Center and shifted the focus to the humanitarian services it offers, such as free meals and showers. 

Staff at the site have reversed 300 overdoses since the Tenderloin Center opened. Overdoses that occurred outside of the center were 7% more likely to result in death, according to Kral’s report. 

Guests of the Tenderloin Center most often come to the site requesting basic necessities, a “safe or social space” or harm reduction services, according to Kral’s research. In prior interviews with The Standard, guests said they used the site for food, hygiene and to store belongings

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Others have described a far more negative impact, albeit anecdotal, on the surrounding area.

Dominga Avila, a merchant at the United Nations Plaza farmers market, said the Tenderloin Center has taken a toll on her livelihood because the fences around the building have blocked a path for customers and pushed drug dealers to gather around her produce stand.  

A Whole Foods supermarket across the street from the facility cut its hours last week, with a manager citing rampant theft and hostile behavior in the store. 

In a recently released overdose prevention plan, the health department indicated that it plans to build three “wellness hubs” that will replicate services provided at the Tenderloin Center. The Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance last week urging the Mayor’s Office and the health department to extend services at the Tenderloin Center until an imitable replacement is opened. 

Some city officials are working on ways to create similar sites while lessening the impact on their surrounding neighborhoods. 

Supervisor Matt Dorsey proposed legislation in June that would implement “Right to Recovery” blocks, where using drugs would be prohibited outside of harm reduction facilities. 

“It’s defeating the purpose of the facility if you’re leaving with implements to use drugs on the street,” Dorsey said. “I worry about the city doing things that create poster children for the city’s inability to do anything right, or to try to solve a problem by creating another one.”

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David Sjostedt can be reached at [email protected]


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