Nov 3, 2022 - News

City, community groups to reimagine Tenderloin after decades of distress

The intersection of Leavenworth and Golden Gate Streets in the Tenderloin. Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

San Francisco's Planning Department, alongside community groups, is equipped with $4.1 million from the city budget to draft and implement an ambitious plan to fix the Tenderloin's longstanding issues of public safety, drug use and abuse, and chronic homelessness.

Why it matters: There's a "level of crisis" that has "hit a new level" in the Tenderloin, Miriam Chion, director of community equity for the department, told Axios. "The combination of people really dying on the streets, drug dealing, drug consumption and the level of poverty that we find so concentrated."

  • It's "been a marginalized community for decades," Tenderloin People's Congress chairperson Curtis Bradford told Axios. That's because it's been "utilized as a containment zone at times."
  • The primary goal of the Community Action Plan is to "try to rectify some of the historical injustices that exist," Bradford added.

What's happening: SF's Planning Department has been working on the action plan since July.

  • The department pointed to street closures and cleanings, art activations and expanding affordable housing options as examples of what the plan could entail.
  • The plan's Community Stakeholder Group, made up of 60% Tenderloin residents, is working to develop a draft detailing potential projects.

By the numbers: The Tenderloin is a diverse neighborhood, with many residents below the $33,148 poverty threshold, per Census data.

  • The majority of the neighborhood identifies as Black, Latino, Asian or from another group of color, and 42% of households in the Tenderloin earn under $25,000 a year, compared to 15% citywide, per the Planning Department.
  • Area residents accounted for 22% of the 451 people citywide who suffered fatal overdoses between January and September, according to SF's chief medical examiner.
  • From 2018 to 2022, the Tenderloin saw 995 drug-related crimes, the highest among all the neighborhoods in SF, per an analysis by the San Francisco Standard.
  • District 5, which includes the Tenderloin, had the third-highest number of unhoused people, th7, on a single night in February, per the latest point-in-time homeless count.

Zoom in: The biggest challenge in the neighborhood is open-air drug dealing, where people sell drugs in well-defined areas at specific times, Del Seymour, founder of nonprofit Code Tenderloin, who's informally known as the area's mayor, told Axios.

  • Yes, and: There are too many city departments, Seymour said, "with their fingers in the Tenderloin, and when some s**t comes up, everyone says, 'Oh, not me, you need to talk to them.' So we need one person that can't point fingers."

When the Community Action Plan starts implementing projects next year, the Planning Department will be fiscally and logistically responsible for ensuring the agencies involved are on task, Chion said.

  • As a hypothetical, the Planning Department could pay Public Works to create more pit stops, where people can use the bathroom, and dispose of needles and dog waste without requiring the department to dip into its own budget.

Context: City planners and organizers see the Community Action Plan as building on two key initiatives: The community-led, but never-implemented Tenderloin Vision 2020 plan, which outlined resources like more 24-hour restrooms and the development of a new commercial corridor; and Mayor London Breed's 90-day State of Emergency in the Tenderloin.

  • The emergency order, which waived certain local laws to address fatal drug overdoses in 2021, led to the opening of the Tenderloin Center to provide meals, mental health services, drug overdose prevention supplies and more.

Flashback: The Tenderloin has a culturally rich history that's overshadowed by its present-day issues.

  • In 1917, hundreds of sex workers marched in the Tenderloin to protest low wages.
  • The neighborhood's Blackhawk jazz club hosted musicians like Miles Davis and Billie Holliday between 1949 and 1963.
  • The Tenderloin's Compton's Cafeteria, in 1966, was home to the first documented LGBTQ uprising against police harassment in the U.S.

Yes, but: The Tenderloin has "always been a difficult place," St. Anthony Foundation's CEO Nils Behnke told Axios.

  • Since 1950, St. Anthony's has provided food, shelter and other services in the neighborhood.
  • The Tenderloin has been "structurally disadvantaged ..." Behnke said, adding, "organized criminals and drug dealers … pursue their business here with impunity. It has a lot of negative, external effects on all other members of the community," including those who suffer from substance use disorders who are "preyed on."

What to watch: If the Community Action Plan fails to address open-air drug dealing, the result would be like "rearranging the chairs on the Titanic," Randy Shaw, director of the largest operator of single-occupancy rooms in the city, Tenderloin Housing Clinic, told Axios.

  • Shaw is a proponent of increasing police presence in the Tenderloin to address drug dealing.
  • "As valuable as many of the components [of the plan] are, you can't let this neighborhood continue to be taken over by a drug cartel, and that's what the mayor has allowed," he said.
  • Meanwhile, $4.1 million isn't enough to tackle all the issues in the Tenderloin, Andi Nelson, a senior community development specialist with the Planning Department, told Axios. But "it will go far," she said.

Between the lines: The Tenderloin became part of District 5 in April as part of the once-per-decade redistricting process.

  • D5 Supervisor Dean Preston acknowledges "there are real challenges" in the neighborhood that "we're not going to police and prosecute and incarcerate our way out" of.
  • Instead, Preston told Axios, the city needs to invest in solutions that include outreach to those experiencing drug addiction and safe consumption sites. He said he sees the Community Action Plan as "a really good starting point."

What's next: The Planning Department intends to hold a vote in January 2023, where community members can determine which projects to fund.

  • Project implementation could take six months.
  • If successful, the plan could serve as a model for other neighborhoods in the city, Nelson said. "Ideally," she said, "we would do this for everyone who needs it," including areas like Bayview Hunters-Point, Visitacion Valley and more.

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