SF Turns Tenderloin Into Encampment Free Zone

by on July 16, 2019

Daily encampment in front of 125 Hyde

Tents Dominate Tenderloin Sidewalks

San Francisco’s residential Tenderloin neighborhood has been converted into an encampment free zone. Tents  block sidewalks morning, noon and night. Pedestrians blocked by tents are forced to walk in the street,  with wheelchair users blocked from passing entirely. Many use tents for illegal drug activities, offering drugs to passers by. Tenderloin sidewalks are filthier than ever, filled from the detritus of people using tents as fulltime living quarters.

If it sounds terrible for one of the nation’s wealthiest cities to enable such a scene, it is. But the San Francisco Police Department is allowing this.

Why? Who decided that open encampments would be allowed in the Tenderloin? Who are the owners guilty of maintaining public nuisances on their properties and blocking sidewalks in violation of the Americans for Disability Act? What can and should be done?

I have worked in the Tenderloin for 39 years. I have seen a lot in the neighborhood—-but until now I have never seen Tenderloin sidewalks taken over by tents.

Tents are Nearly Everywhere

Last week during the day, tents were at Eddy and Hyde, Eddy between Hyde and Larkin, Turk from Larkin halfway to Leavenworth, Ellis and Jones, Golden Gate and Jones and Turk and Jones, and in front of 125 Hyde. These are  locations I personally saw or which were reported to me; there may be more.

Kathy Looper, whose purchase of the Cadillac Hotel with her husband Leroy in 1976 started the Tenderloin’s revival, has “never before seen tents throughout the Tenderloin.” Looper feels that “you can’t walk down the sidewalk without having to go into the street to get by a tent. It’s disgraceful the city is allowing this.”

Looper recently called the police to stop people from barbecuing on the sidewalk in front of the Cadillac. “There was an open flame in a very dense residential area and the police said that all we could do is call a mental health office.” Captain Fabbri later emailed Looper saying the police would “look into the legality of sidewalk BBQ’s.”

If sidewalk BBQ’s are legal maybe people will bypass the expensive process for opening restaurants and just put a grill out on the sidewalk. But I suspect this tolerance for fire risk and ignoring of health laws is limited to the Tenderloin.

UC Hastings Chancellor and Dean David Faigman began at the school in 1987.  Like many of us who were here in those days, Faigman noted the neighborhood’s progress. “The revitalized UC Hastings Law campus, wonderful new cafes and restaurants complementing long time family run and typically ethnic venues that well represent the neighborhood’s diversity, all reflect a positive change in the Tenderloin’s fortunes.” But Faigman has recently seen that “the streets have gotten worse, and today they are the worst ever. This in spite of the praiseworthy efforts of the Tenderloin Community Benefits District, an organization geared toward neighborhood cleaning and betterment and funded by property owners in the form of a self-assessed special tax recently renewed and significantly increased.”

Why It’s Happening Now

Contrary to what some believe, the proliferation of tents in the Tenderloin has nothing to do with court rulings restricting police enforcement of encampments. Those rulings do not prevent police from maintaining sidewalks free of tents.

Tents are proliferating now because the San Francisco Police Department has decided not to spend resources clearing them from the Tenderloin. Don’t blame Tenderloin Station. It has been told to increase resources in UN Plaza and Market Street and feels it has no officers left to police tents in the Tenderloin.

Protecting those two nearby high problem areas should not require opening up the Tenderloin to encampments. The SFPD can protect Market Street theatergoers and commuters using UN Plaza without sacrificing the safety of the Tenderloin’s low-income, disabled and working class residents.

This race and class driven double standard for police services is happening in “progressive” San Francisco. A city where addressing economic inequality and racism—of which the low-income, racially and ethnically diverse Tenderloin is a top example—is supposed to be a top priority.

D9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen got action from the police when she raised a fuss about encampments in her district. D6 Supervisor Matt Haney has been very outspoken about Tenderloin drug dealing and pedestrian safety (Haney has done wonders on the latter) but less vocal about clearing out the tents he sees every day near his Hyde Street apartment.

I asked Haney for his thoughts. Here was his response: “It seems like the city broke up large encampments in SOMA and Mission, and then ignored smaller encampments or individuals who are experiencing homelessness and sleeping alone in the TL, especially as many of those former tent encampment residents ended up in the TL and alleys in SOMA. That’s not a solution. We have big encampment resolutions where people are often offered Nav Center spots, but what about the person who is lying on a piece of cardboard in the TL night in and night out?  We also need urgency for them. We need much more proactive street outreach in the Tenderloin.  It often feels like when homelessness grows in the Tenderloin that it is ignored, reflecting the tendency to treat the TL as a containment zone. Instead let’s get those folks into shelter, housing and services with the same urgency with which we respond in other parts of the city.”

But getting people access to services is a separate issue from allowing tents. Haney held a March hearing on police sweeps of encampments during stormy weather, but it hasn’t rained in a month in the Tenderloin and there are more tents than ever before. And under current policy if someone in a tent says they don’t want available shelter and services they are still allowed to block the sidewalk.

That has to change.

Haney has gotten city funding for showers and toilets. But these amenities were not designed to support an infrastructure for encampments. Or for Tenderloin drug dealers who do not live in the neighborhood and need facilities to relieve themselves.

Tenderloin encampments have become protected facilities for drug dealing and using; this is not a case of people pitching a tenant at night and then leaving in the morning.

Mayor Breed unquestionably wants to make the Tenderloin a safer and healthier neighborhood. She has almost doubled the dollars for Tenderloin sidewalk cleaning. But the extensive garbage created by the encampments—-and last week I saw a stack of garbage outside a Golden Gate and Jones encampment that was ten feet wide by five feet high— has left the Tenderloin dirtier than ever.

We’re talking about levels of trash near many encampments that require clearance by a truck, not a TLCBD worker carrying a trash bag.

Mayor Breed has encountered the same problem that faced Mayor Lee: she cannot get Chief Scott to allocate sufficient officers to the Tenderloin to reduce drug dealing and encampments. Scott could shift officers to the Tenderloin who are currently busy arresting shoplifters at the Westfield Center but refuses to do so. Instead, he forces the Tenderloin to bear the brunt of campers and dealers displaced from UN Plaza and Market Street.

I have written many stories since 2018 ( “How Police Fail the Tenderloin,” “Who’s to Blame For SF’s Open Drug Dealing?,” “SF Public Defender Wrong About Tenderloin Drug Dealing” are a sample) highlighting the desperate need for more police visibility in the Tenderloin neighborhood. And it is still lacking.

Arrests must be joined by police visibility to stop a new flow of dealers from simply replacing those taken off the streets. We are talking about major drug cartels that have no problem filling vacancies. It’s good that arrests of corner dealers have stepped up but progress is being eclipsed by people shooting up and dealing drugs around tents.

If Chief Scott won’t provide sufficient resources to stop the Tenderloin from becoming either a drug dealer and encampment free zone, the Police Commission or Mayor must intervene. Either that or they should fire him.

Time for the Courts

I’ve seen a lot of strategies used to combat drug dealing and public nuisance activities on sidewalks. The most effective has been suing property owners who allow illegal activities on their sidewalks.

In the early 1990’s Nevio Mosser and I coordinated litigation by a neighborhood group, Adopt-A-Block, that stopped dealing outside the Maryland Market at Turk and Leavenworth that had persisted for years. Everyone said our legal action would go nowhere. Instead, the dealing has not returned for 25 years and counting since our lawsuit. This litigation strategy, involving residents, merchants and property owners, is a last resort—but we have reached that point in the Tenderloin.

Three properties are ripe for litigation.

125 Hyde

The San Francisco Bar Association, owners of the site, has allowed drug dealing and encampments in front of its property for some time (see photo from yesterday). It doesn’t bother their attorneys or staff because they enter their offices from the back alley.

The site houses the Homeless Advocacy Project. I’m not sure why the Bar Association promotes drug dealing on a block where formerly homeless people have to regularly walk. And if its Board members ideologically support the right to camp they should offer opportunities in front of their own residences to those blocking the sidewalk at 125 Hyde.

Turk and Hyde

SEIU Local 87, the janitors union, freely allows camping bordering its now often vacant parking lot at Turk and Hyde. People have complained about drug dealing bordering the union parking lot for two decades but the camping is new.

Local 87 has gotten away with maintaining a public nuisance because city officials don’t want to get into a fight with a local union (former Mayor Gavin Newsom was the exception, and got improvements to the lot after having it lot cited as a nuisance). The union has turned down multiple offers to develop the property, all while it remains a neighborhood nuisance.

Earlier this year I spent a lot of time sending documents to SF Chronicle reporter Dominic Fracassa about the decades of complaints about the union lot. Fracassa interviewed Matt Haney and community members but then dropped the story. He never explained to me why.

Mayor Lee tried his best to get the union to build housing on the lot and failed. Litigation is the only recourse. Otherwise, we’ll go another ten years with a major corner in the Tenderloin openly used for drug sales.

1072 Market Street

While just outside the Tenderloin’s borders, the smoke shop and liquor store next to the corner of Market and Jones impacts our Boyd Hotel and nearby Tenderloin residents and businesses.  The regular crowd of dealers and users also negatively impacts business at the adjacent Proper Hotel and the Hibernia Bank.

What’s remarkable about the persistence of these nuisance properties is that they are on month to month leases. Why has their landlord not evicted them? And why has the city attorney not sued the landlord for not evicting these nuisance businesses?

The Invest in Neighborhood’s Office of the OEWD has been trying to stop the nuisance for years but a former deputy city attorney said there was not enough evidence. He had to be the only person who failed to see the daily drug sales going on around the premises.

I believe if former Deputy City Attorney Jerry Threet were still here we would have seen those nuisance businesses closed long ago. Fortunately, a new deputy in code enforcement started this spring who is more in line with Threet’s (and Dennis Herrera’s) aggressive code enforcement approach.

What is really needed is an Adopt-a-Block type Small Claims lawsuit against the owner for nuisance. We should have no problem getting dozens of plaintiffs involved. The photos alone will prove the case.

If you are an attorney seriously  interested in filing these and/or other Tenderloin nuisance cases, please contact me either via our feedback email or my work email. Serious inquires only.

City government is failing the Tenderloin. It’s time to seek justice in the courts.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron and Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic.  He is the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco.


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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