SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (KRON) — The centerpiece of San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s “Tenderloin Emergency Initiative” is re-shifting its focus.
An average of 1-2 people die from drug overdoses — primarily fentanyl — in San Francisco every day. To stem the tide of deaths, the Tenderloin Linkage Center was originally established by the city in January with the goal of “linking” people suffering from drug addiction with services.
Critics of the city’s plan discovered that drug use was being permitted in the center, located at 1172 Market Street.
The city essentially set up a “safe drug consumption site” that is illegal under state and federal law, said Frank Lee, Bay Area director of the California Coalition Against Drugs.
“Drug injection sites are disastrous. Enabling destructive drug use will never work,” Lee said.
On Wednesday, California Senate Bill 57 is slated to be heard in the Assembly Public Safety Committee. The bill, authored by Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), would make safe drug consumption site programs legal in San Francisco and Oakland.
Wiener said, “We can’t keep saying ‘no’ to safe consumption sites and hope that somehow our challenges around addiction, overdoses, and mental health will just go away. They won’t, and they’re getting worse, because we’re not using every tool we have to reduce harm, save lives, and help people get connected to treatment and services.”
Critics of the Tenderloin Linkage Center questioned whether any “linkages” to rehabilitation services were even happening.
According to the city’s data, nearly 50,000 guests utilized the center between January and May.
Only a tiny sliver of visits have actually resulted in linking guests to drug treatment. Between Jan. 31-May 15, 163 people were “referred” substance use treatment and 38 were “connected” to substance use treatment, according to city data.
“Referred” means a person was informed about where they can access treatment and shows a willingness to do so. “Connected” means a person was placed in a treatment program.
The Tenderloin Linkage Center recently dropped the word “linkage” from its name.
The San Francisco Department of Public Health told KRON4 on Tuesday, “We changed the name to Tenderloin Center to reflect the broad array of services that the site provides, from showers, laundry, and hot meals; to community; to referrals to services like housing and treatment. The data we’ve collected from guests coming to the Tenderloin Center show that most people entering are seeking basic services and a social or safe space. Having a safe respite from the streets where basic ‘dignity’ needs are met is the foundation for people on their path to wellness.”
“When they are ready to take the next step toward linkage to care we are there to support that as well,” SFDPH told KRON4.
“A primary goal of the Tenderloin Emergency Initiative is to reduce fatal overdoses. We are committed to creating a safe and welcoming space for both people who use drugs and people who do not use drugs. Because we serve many people who use drugs, the site design, staffing, and set-up allow guests to be observed for safety at all times while respecting guest privacy,” SFDPH wrote.
City data shows that between February 28 – May 29: 36,373 requests were made by guests for basic necessities, 28,095 for safe or social spaces, nearly 7,000 for housing and social services, 6,320 for harm reduction, 1,431 for medical care, 1,235 for behavioral health, and 380 for “other.”
Health department officials stressed that the Tenderloin Center has saved 85 lives since it opened.
“Staff undergo overdose prevention training, which includes identifying and reversing drug overdoses. Since opening, TLC staff have reversed 85 overdoses, and through distribution from the center to guests who have taken naloxone back to the community, hundreds more overdoses have been reversed,” SFDPH wrote in a statement to KRON4.
New city data was released on Wednesday that revealed seven more overdoses were reversed at the center within the past seven days, bringing the total up to 92.
Lee said as long as the center does not require guests to undergo addiction treatment, the city’s drug overdose crisis will continue.
“Realistically, an overdose reversal should be thought of a death-delaying, not a life saver. A person will overdose outside the site eventually,” Lee said.
One Tenderloin Center guest named Christopher told KQED that he uses the center as a safe place to use fentanyl and for help finding housing.
“This is not a life for me. This (drug) has torn me down mentally and physically and in ways I can’t describe,” he told KQED.
Michael Shellenberger, a gubernatorial candidate and author of the book “San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities,” said he has been inside the Tenderloin Center twice.
“I have been inside the linkage center twice. In the site are people in late-stage addiction suffering from serious health problems. There is no pressure put on addicts to seek help,” he said.
He also spent time talking to people living on the streets in the surrounding area.
“The whole area has been destroyed. There are armed drug dealers spread throughout this neighborhood. They use machetes and stab addicts for lack of payment. Women are sexually assaulted,” Shellenberger said.
“They said they could get addicts away from the drug scene in a controlled environment. But the drug scene is larger than it’s ever been. San Francisco is normalizing hard drug use and drug dealing,” Shellenberger said.
He said 95 percent of people who he talked on the streets were using either fentanyl or methamphetamine.
For many people suffering from a fentanyl use disorder, the drug has to be used every few hours to prevent tortuous withdrawal symptoms, he said.
Shellenberger said if the city put more focus and funding into rehabilitation services, more lives would ultimately be saved in the long-run.
“People in their 20’s and 30’s could go on and recover from their addiction and live full human lives,” Shellenberger said.
Jacqui Berlinn, who started Mothers Against Drug Deaths, agrees. Her 30-year-old son, Corey, has been using heroin and fentanyl on the streets of San Francisco for seven years.
“My son isn’t trash. He deserves to get his life back,” Berlinn told californiahealthline.org.
In April, her group put up a billboard featuring the Golden Gate Bridge with the message, “Famous the world over for our brains, beauty and, now, dirt-cheap fentanyl.”
Lee said the Tenderloin Center is “definitely illegal” and slammed District Attorney Chesa Boudin for not shutting it down.
“We need a district attorney who is enforcing the law. If he was doing his job, he would have shut down the open air market,” Lee said.
Chuck Doucette, who worked as an undercover narcotics law enforcement officer for 30 years, said, “the power of addiction works over a person’s free will. When an addicted person is experiencing withdrawals, they are not rational. We need to make it easier to get into treatment, not easier to continue an addiction until it kills them.”