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Criminal Justice

What Life Is Like at the Center of San Francisco’s Drug Crisis

Written by Garrett LeahyPublished Dec. 17, 2022 • 10:00am
Pedestrians, including children, pass people using drugs in the Tenderloin in San Francisco. | Jason Henry for The Standard

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With the closure of the Tenderloin Center, a safe drug-use site, the city is now grappling with how to address its drug crisis moving forward. With the mayor and supervisors pitted against each other in a fight to open more sites—or none at all.

Supervisors say safe use sites are essential for stopping rampant overdose deaths, but the Mayor’s Office says the federally illegal sites could cause the city huge legal problems.

Caught in the middle of the debate are everyday residents living in the Tenderloin and SoMa—the worst affected neighborhoods. 

Residents enduring the crisis told The Standard what living inside the epicenter of it is like.

‘I Have Four Kids’

Wendy Ake cuts hair at her business, Wendy’s Salon, in the Tenderloin. | Jason Henry for The Standard

Barber Wendy Ake said that she regularly sees drug use and dealing near her home and workplace, especially on the streets of Eddy, Hyde and Ellis.

Ake has lived in the Tenderloin for nine years at the Mosser Towers on Turk Street, where she also works.

“It’s so bad because I have four kids. I see [people] using, selling,” Ake said in Spanish.

The single mother said she thinks the neighborhood is too unsafe for her kids to play outside.

She takes her kids out of the worst parts of the neighborhood to the Metreon or Jefferson Square Park to play. Even though there is a closer playground just down the street.

“For the most part the kids stay home, because it’s too dangerous,” Ake said in Spanish. “Not even in the [nearby] park.”

Related: Photos of Life at the Center of San Francisco’s Drug Crisis

The Tenderloin Center

A man sleeps on the sidewalk in the Tenderloin in San Francisco. | Jason Henry for The Standard

A few blocks south of Ake’s home, the Tenderloin Center closed on Dec. 4, and has some residents worried about what will happen following the safe drug-use site’s closure.

Reese Isbell, who lives in SoMa south of Civic Center, said he had issues with drug dealers and users gathering near his apartment before police action moved the problem away. 

Reese Isbell on the roof of the building where he lives with his partner in San Francisco. | Jason Henry for The Standard

But now that the Tenderloin Center is closed and the city is reducing the hours that the UN Plaza is open, he worries that users and dealers will return to the block where he lives.

“They’re still around UN Plaza, and the shutting down of UN Plaza makes me worried they’re going to come over here,” Isbell said.

The Tenderloin Center reversed more than 300 overdoses and served almost 100,000 meals, washed over 3,400 loads of laundry and completed more than 1,500 referrals to housing and shelter. The Tenderloin Center cost the city $22 million during its 11 months of operation.

In the aftermath of the center’s closure, some city officials are pushing to open more similar sit, with the Department of Public Health planning a dozen “wellness hubs” around the city, before the Mayor’s Office said the plans had been stalled by apparent legal issues

‘They Ain’t Changed Shit’

Brenda Lopez, who has lived in the Tenderloin neighborhood for 18 years. | Jason Henry for The Standard

Many Tenderloin residents haven’t noticed a difference, both while the Tenderloin Center was open and since it closed.

“They ain’t changed shit,” said Brenda Lopez, who has lived in a single-room occupancy (SRO) unit at the Vincent Hotel for 18 years.

“There’s still dope, people getting shot, stabbed; it’s crazy out here,” said Lopez, who also told The Standard she had recently gotten off methadone. “I don’t feel unsafe per se, I’m pretty much seeing the same things.”

Security guard Saya Burns moved to the Tenderloin from the Western Addition four years ago.

People gather on the sidewalk along Hyde Street in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, on Dec. 14, 2022. | Jason Henry for The Standard

Burns said she keeps her head down and hopes no one will bother her, especially when she leaves for work early in the morning and often sees people using drugs near her block.

“If it’s really early and it’s looking sketchy, just walk by. If you look scared, of course they’re going to bug you,” Burns said. “I don’t want to deal with all the riff raff.”

Jennifer Friedenbach has worked in the Tenderloin for 27 years and is the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, in her office in San Francisco. | Jason Henry for The Standard

Friedenbach said the Tenderloin is the most impoverished neighborhood in the city and has had drug issues for decades.

“If affluent people are moving into an impoverished neighborhood, they should know what they are getting into,” Friedenbach said during an interview in the Coalition’s offices on Turk Street.

Friedenbach said that despite the neighborhood’s issues, it’s a tight-knit community that’s politically engaged.

“I think it is also a caring community,” Friedenbach said. “They know their supervisor, they have spoken at City Hall.”

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Garrett Leahy can be reached at [email protected]


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