With crime a persistent and growing concern for many Americans, one city that’s frequently in the headlines is San Francisco. As homelessness has spiraled out of control, drug crime has gotten so bad in one historic section of town, the mayor declared a state of emergency to try to get a grip on it. Today in our cover story, we pay a visit to the troubled San Francisco neighborhood known as The Tenderloin.
Katherine Vaughn is a native San Franciscan. Once homeless, she’s now among the low-income residents living in an apartment partly paid for by the government in the city’s Tenderloin District.
Katherine Vaughn: It's really gone downhill.
Sharyl: Just tell me what you've seen.
Vaughn: I’ve lived in every neighborhood here, and I come here, and it wasn't even safe for me to walk a pit bull, one would consider one of the most dangerous dogs in the world, yet I felt scared to walk her. Constant garbage in the streets, people laying around on the front of the building shooting up, people passed out on the streets.
A short walk from City Hall, the famously gritty Tenderloin District in San Francisco was long known best for its trendy restaurants, jazz clubs, art, and historic theatres.
Today, it’s become infamous as an open-air market for drug dealers and users. A neighborhood so rough that our drive by after dusk drew a violent response, a chunk of wood hurled through the rear window of our van.
Sharyl (on-camera): There were already dicey areas of the Tenderloin District, but, by most accounts, it was during Covid and a change in mayors that there was an explosion of drug-dealing that seems, to many, to be tolerated by nearly every authority.
Sharyl: And you're saying the tone of the neighborhood changes a lot right here?
Randy Shaw: Oh, it changes radically when you get to Eddy and Hyde because the next block is the worst block of the neighborhood. You have 50 to a 100 drug dealers doing business every single day and rarely, if ever, does a police officer show up.
Sharyl: You're talking about right up this street?
Randy Shaw heads up the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which advocates for residents in low-income housing. The way he sees it, a current hyper-focus on the homeless is a diversion from the real issue.
Sharyl: What do you mean by that?
Shaw: If you eliminate drug dealers in the Tenderloin, we would be fine. We wouldn't have to do anything else. That is 90% of the problem. But people have a need for whatever reason to talk about homelessness, people with mental health problems. They’re all over San Francisco. What distinguishes the Tenderloin is the toleration for massive open-air drug dealing.
Sharyl: When did this change? When did it become a problem of something greater than what you would normally see in San Francisco?
Shaw: It really started changing in 2019. And then it really got bad during the pandemic. People always say, "Well, Tenderloin's had a long history of vice." Yes, it has. But the worst it was in the 80s and 90s is nowhere comparable to how bad it's gotten.
Things are so bad, a major sub-economy has formed, starting with San Francisco shelling out more than a billion dollars over the last two years on homelessness.
At this “safe sleeping village,” where we weren’t allowed in, the city was reported to be paying an incredible $60,000 per tent per year, twice the rent of a typical one-bedroom apartment.
Shaw: And those tents, everyone says, "Oh, weren't those tents for homeless people?" They're dealing drugs out of the tents. Because you can have a drug deal in a tent, the police can't see you.
Millions more taxpayer funds go to a nonprofit social program called Urban Alchemy. Their workers, mostly ex-cons, line the streets of the Tenderloin District, wearing uniforms marked with fluorescent yellow stripes. They're tasked with peacefully turning around tough neighborhoods by cleaning them up, having conversations, and providing support.
Shaw: So while Urban Alchemy is to clean up all these blocks from 7:00 to 7:00, we need the police to come in in other hours. And they've just been nowhere to be found. You're here right now — do you see any police?
In all the hours we spent in the Tenderloin, we didn’t see one uniformed police officer along the most notorious strip on foot or in a patrol car. We did see people lined up to use drugs in broad daylight and lots of drug dealers doing business with no fear of being stopped.
Sharyl: What's your best guess as to why that's not being done?
Shaw: I think ultimately it comes down to City Hall accepting the Tenderloin is a containment zone and feeling like, "I'm really afraid they'll go to another neighborhood." But they don't want to say that publicly because it sounds like they're not caring about low-income families. But how else do you explain it? And here’s the kicker: we sent 40 to 80 officers to Union Square after the Louis Vuitton handbags were stolen on a video. I mean, we're protecting essentially vacant stores. It wasn't even people or families. No one lives, you know, it was businesses. So what does that tell you about what the city's priorities really are? It's very sad because San Francisco called itself a progressive city. It says, "We care about working people. We care about low-income people." Well then, why are families and kids having to walk through drug dealers?
The kids — they get formal escorts to get home safely after school. The escorts are organized with help from the Tenderloin Community Benefit District, where Elise Gorberg works. This year, her group successfully pressured San Francisco to declare a 90-day state of emergency in the Tenderloin with an intense focus on cleaning it up.
Elise Gorberg: One of the reasons we wanted the state of emergency is because we want to have the kids in the neighborhood feel safe walking to and from school.
During our visit, the Tenderloin’s three-month-long state of emergency was coming to an end. San Francisco Mayor London Breed declined our interview request and didn't answer our questions about lack of police action and whether the drug zone is tolerated. As to accomplishments, a spokesman told us the state of emergency “identified focus areas including drug dealing and violent crime, public substance abuse and linking people in crisis to care and support services, safe passage and accessibility, neighborhood cleanliness, housing resources, emergency medical calls and illegal vending.”
Gorberg: I think there are definitely areas in the neighborhood where we have seen some improvement. But I think what we're really concerned about is seeing what will happen after this sort of three-month period that we've been in.
Sharyl: The mayor declared a 90-day state of emergency. What's your understanding of what she hoped to accomplish during the 90 days and what have you seen?
Shaw: Well, the state of emergency was supposed to involve a police crackdown in drug dealers. That has never happened. The bottom line is that San Francisco always has had the resources and the staffing to stop drug dealing, except it allows it in the Tenderloin.
As many American cities struggle with waves of homelessness, mental illness, crime, and drugs, residents of the Tenderloin are left to draw their own conclusions as to why things continue to be so bad.
Vaughn: They're using this as a containment zone so that they don't spread out to other areas.
Sharyl: You're saying they accept the drug dealing?
Sharyl: In a small part of town.
Vaughn: Absolutely. They accept it. They figure, don't touch it, because they might move to another area where they definitely don't want it. I mean, it breaks my heart to watch this stuff.
Sharyl (on-camera): Right now, Urban Alchemy reportedly has about 20 contracts in California worth $50 million to try to improve rough neighborhoods. That’s expected to expand to $100 million over the next couple of years, employing 1,500 ex-prison inmates.