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50 Blocks: Tales from San Francisco’s Tenderloin District

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) — In every block of San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, there’s a story to tell. Some good. Some trouble. All worth sharing, in the hopes of building a better community.

This project challenges city leaders and the entire Bay Area to care more, to do more, and to help build a better Bay Area for our future. We address the problems within the district from the inside out.

Join ABC7 in our commitment to reporting from the Tenderloin. Watch our latest 30-minutes streaming special, “50 Blocks: Stories from the Tenderloin,” in the video player above.

Or by downloading the ABC7 Bay Area App to watch on Roku, Amazon Fire, Apple and Android TV.

ABC7 News has covered stories in the Tenderloin ever since the station was founded in 1949, but this recent commitment came about after one particular event.

In December 2021, Mayor London Breed declared a state of emergency in the Tenderloin in response to the city’s drug overdose crisis. The mayor stated more than 700 people died due to drug overdoses in 2021, which at the time was nearly double the city’s COVID-19 death toll.

The ultra-lethal synthetic opioid fentanyl was believed to be responsible for the crisis and the vast majority of all fentanyl sales were happening in the tenderloin.

After this announcement, ABC7 News committed to reporting on how the emergency initiative unfolded, what difference it made, and what happened after the declaration was over.

This is a timeline of our reporting:

December 2021

Dec 17: State of Emergency Declared

When Mayor London Breed declared a State of Emergency in Tenderloin, she explained the keys to her plan would be, “To disrupt the illegal activity in the neighborhood, to get people the treatment and support they need, and to make the Tenderloin a safer, more livable place for the families and children who call the neighborhood home.”

She cited the COVID-19 emergency declaration as a template that allowed them to “cut through the bureaucracy and barriers that get in the way of decisive action, we can get things done and make real, tangible progress.”

One of the key pieces of her plan was the opening of a linkage center, which would connect Tenderloin residents with basic health and human services quickly and easily, including behavior health care, substance abuse treatment, and housing assistance.

ABC7 examined the mayor’s plan to figure out how it would work to make the city safer for residents, visitors.

Jan 2022

Jan 18: Tenderloin Linkage Center Opens

Officials said once fully staffed, the center on Market Street would be able to serve up to 100 guests at a time, 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.

“I am optimistic that the new Linkage Center will provide new and useful services for Tenderloin residents who are battling mental illness and drug addiction,” said Supervisor Hillary Ronen. “I am also watching its success closely to see if it could be converted into a Citywide resource as the permanent site of the upcoming Mental Health SF Service Center.”

Mayor Breed appeared on ABC7’s Getting Answers show to talk about the center.

February 2022

As the mayor’s plan began to actually happen, ABC7 News started actively reporting in the tenderloin to see how it was going. We walked through the streets with the captain of the Tenderloin station as he explained why 85% of SF’s drug arrests happen in this district.

ABC7 News also talked to a Tenderloin historian about how its rich history sheds light on its current role as a containment zone for vice.

Feb 8: Drug Addicts’ Families Protest Linkage Center

Not everyone was in favor of the new Linkage Center. A group of mothers staged a protest at the center because it has a safe injection site. That’s a place where drug users can take drugs while being monitored by a staff member so they do not overdose. The Department of Public Health said the staff has already reversed an average of three overdoses a week since the site opened. But the protestors say the site may only be making the crisis worse.

“You have to quit enabling them,” one demonstrator exclaimed. “Giving them everything they need. Why would I ever leave?”

Feb 23: Nonprofit Worker Shot In Broad Daylight

At the end of the month, a city ambassador from the nonprofit Urban Alchemy was shot, prompting residents to plead for more help saying, “It’s the Tenderloin. Nobody feels safe in the Tenderloin.”

Mayor Breed said this to ABC7 News, “We are definitely going to need to step up our presence. Both our wellness teams and our police and a number of other resources in order to ensure safety. Not just for people who are part of Urban Alchemy , but the entire community.”

Concerns later surfaced that the nonprofit, that received millions from the city to hire ambassadors, might be exploiting a loophole that exempts charitable organizations from having employees receive standardized security training. ABC7 News talked with our colleagues at the San Francisco Standard about this claim.

March 2022

Part of the mayor’s plan was to make the tenderloin a safer and more livable space. One key to that goal was to literally make the streets cleaner. ABC7 News went along as cleaning teams went out to work on cleaning up the Tenderloin’s streets.

“It’s daunting to be honest, because we can clean the street and 10 minutes later it looks like we have never been there.”

ABC7 also followed along with one family to see how they viewed the effort. Jacques Bidjima walks his two children to school in the Tenderloin everyday. They have two routes available. One could be described as bad, the other as awful.

“I start hating myself,” he said. “How can I have my kids growing up in an environment like this? I don’t have much choice.”

March 16: Mayor Breed Ends Emergency Declaration

Ninety days after the State of Emergency was declared, it came up for review. Mayor Breed announced she would allow it to expire and said the Tenderloin’s emergency declaration improved conditions, but still had a long road ahead. The city reported that 345 people were placed in shelters with another 154 going to permanent supportive housing.

The city agrees changing the persistent culture there will take more than 90 days and says the Linkage Center will continue to operate through June, but now under the direction of the public health department.

April 2022

April 4: Linkage Center Protests Escalate

The same group that protested the Linkage Center’s safe injection site escalated their protest by purchasing a billboard in Union Square calling out open drug use. The billboard read, “Famous for the world over for our brains, beauty and now dirt-cheap fentanyl.”

Organizers say they put the billboard up in response to the Mayor ending the emergency declaration and then heading to Europe to pitch San Francisco as a tourist destination.

“And we’re like, wait a minute, it’s not changed,” one organizer said. “We should still be in a state of emergency. And then she went to Europe and said, ‘Come to San Francisco. It’s fine.’ Um, no, it’s not fine. It’s really not.”

April 29: Another Urban Alchemy ambassador shot

The shooting happened in broad daylight and police said a search for the suspect was underway.

June 2022

June 16: City Announces Tenderloin Linkage Center Will Close In December

While the center got a 6-month extension to operate until the end of 2022, Mayor London Breed declined to fund the center in her latest budget proposal. A spokesperson for the mayor said the Linkage Center was only meant to be a temporary solution until they could develop longer term plans for the tenderloin.

June 23: City Announces Opening Of First Sobering Center

The center named SoMa RISE was described as , “a safe indoor space for people who are intoxicated… to come in off the streets, rest and stabilize, and get connected to care and services.”

They also said it would service the Tenderloin neighborhood by helping fill some of the void left by the Linkage Center.

So Where Does That Leave The Tenderloin Now?

ABC7 News is trying to answer that in our latest 30-minute streaming special, ”50 Blocks: Stories from the Tenderloin.”

You can stream the full documentary by downloading the ABC7 Bay Area App to watch on Roku, Amazon Fire, Apple and Android TV or by watching it in the video player on this story.

Click here to see more ABC7 Originals content.

If you’re on the ABC7 News app, click here to watch live

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