SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — Governor Gavin Newsom toured San Francisco’s drug-plagued Tenderloin neighborhood on Wednesday for an unannounced visit.

The media was not notified about Newsom’s surprise visit, but JJ Smith spotted the well-dressed politician strolling down Ellis and Leavenworth streets flanked by staff members.

Smith hits the streets of the Tenderloin daily to encourage unsheltered people, especially teenagers and young adults, to seek a better life through substance abuse treatment. “I was always raised to look out for others. If you can give someone a hand, give them a hand,” Smith told KRON4.

Smith started recording with his cellphone Wednesday and shouted out to the governor, “Hey Gavin, tell me what you’re going to do about the fentanyl epidemic?”

“Well, that’s why we are here,” Newsom replied. “I need you to tell me what we need to do.”

Newsom is no stranger to San Francisco’s challenges; he was the city’s mayor from 2004–2011.

Smith said the governor needs to stop and talk to people living on the streets to find solutions. With heart-wrenching frequency, Smith watches the city’s coroner van pull up to fentanyl overdose victims and drive bodies away from the Tenderloin. Last month, Smith told KRON4 that San Francisco’s fentanyl epidemic was getting even worse, despite pledges from city leaders that new policies will address the crisis.

Data released by the city’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner on April 14 shows Smith was right: 2023 has seen a spike in overdose deaths.

Between January and March, 200 victims died from accidental drug overdoses in San Francisco. One-hundred-fifty-nine of those deaths were caused by fentanyl, a highly addictive and cheap synthetic opioid, according to city data.

Data from the Chief Medical Examiner shows 200 people died from drug overdoses between January-March of 2023. (Graphic courtesy

More than any other San Francisco neighborhood, the Tenderloin was listed as the “location of death” and place of residence. Smith said many of these overdoses occur inside Single Room Occupancy, also known as “SRO,” homes that the city supports as alternatives to homeless shelters.

The Department of Building Inspection works with nonprofit community organizations to provide support to tenants who live in low-income SROs.

“Everybody deserves a place to live, but if you take someone who was homeless, and know they have mental issues or drug addiction, stay on top of it. Don’t just leave them in that room and forget about them in the SRO. That’s committing suicide,” Smith said.

Smith said the city needs more case managers for more frequent check-ins with SRO residents.  

Data from the Chief Medical Examiner shows 66 people died from drug overdoses in March of 2023. (Graphic courtesy

San Francisco’s fatal drug overdose rate spiked to an all-time high in 2020 with 725 deaths. According the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, San Francisco recorded 640 overdose deaths in 2021 and 638 in 2022. Now 2023 is out-pacing 2020 in monthly deaths.