Inside the Tenderloin, can a city fix a neighborhood while staying true to its values?

San Francisco, one of the bluest cities in America, has leaders struggling to balance Democratic principles with practicality

Urban Alchemy's Rodney Wrice patrols a homeless tent village a block away from San Francisco's City Hall in the Tenderloin neighborhood on Jan. 27. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

SAN FRANCISCO — There is in the pure energy that is Adama Bryant, the up and down and sideways nature of her life, a parable of these 50 square blocks in the downtown district of one of America’s wealthiest cities.

She is a reflection of where she lives, of its unpredictable rhythms, of its churn and tenacity.

Her peak-and-valley journey has taken her from homelessness to a rent-controlled apartment, from pride over her daughter’s academic brilliance to the pain in knowing she would need to send her away for school, from out-of-work Lyft driver to unpaid advocate pushing for the Tenderloin’s children to be shown the wild beauty beyond these streets.

It is a story bound and shaped by the Tenderloin, historically a first stop for the hopeful and a last for the desperate.

For Bryant it is simply home, another of its 36,000 residents seeking opportunity and security within its downtown boundaries, angry they have earned through hard experience the unusual urban ability to tell the difference between human waste and dog feces by smell alone.

“Unless you are living in the TL you don’t know it, you can’t be committed to it,” said Bryant, who is Black, taking in the winter sun beaming between buildings one recent morning.

The neighborhood, many things to many people over the decades, helps define the sharpest edge of this rich, troubled city at the epicenter of Blue America. This city is the domain of Democrats, a place that has produced a number of influential state and national political figures over several decades but is run largely by party members well to the left of their national counterparts.

This is also a city that once pioneered the ‘do-your-thing’ ethic of equality, a place where ideology has often clashed with practicality. That pair of cherished civic traits now complicating efforts to address its more visible, disconcerting social failures as Democrats argue over how the meaning of compassion in a neighborhood where violent crime is rising, drug abuse is visibly rampant and homelessness is the defining aspect of its streetscape.

The question at stake is whether a great American city can help a neighborhood, through a surge of law enforcement or through a preponderance of patient social work, or fail in a very public way? Free of Red State friction, the Democrats here have all opportunity and hold all the risk, facing a chance during a midterm election year to see if a city can save a central part of itself and remain true to its liberal virtues.

Now 47, Bryant knows these tensions all too well. She grew up in the city’s Western Addition district and, in the notorious projects that defined the area, got to know her neighbor, now-Mayor London Breed (D). Bryant was homeless for years and now lives in a spacious, rent-controlled apartment — “a very nice place,” as she puts it, “in a terrible neighborhood.”

She has a 16-year-old daughter named Asha, a star student, now enrolled at the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy boarding school far from Ellis Street. “I was ready to pack up and move with her to New Hampshire,” Bryant said. “And the reason I have not looked to move out of here is that I am too afraid of being homeless again.”

One other child lives at home with her, Genesis, the youngest, a nonbinary teen who suffers from a serious anxiety disorder.

“I attribute it to the constant noise here — it is impossible to get used to,” Bryant said. “But I got to the point too where I could tell the difference between the smell of human poo and dog poo — and I hated that, hating the idea of being able to know that difference.”

An out-of-work Lyft driver now, she has been making ends meet with food vouchers and unemployment benefits. She has been protected in her home by pandemic-era eviction moratoriums. But she has also been working for two years without a salary to get her project, Weekend-Adventures, up and running.

The concept is simple: Arrange weekend day trips for the Tenderloin’s children to experience nature just beyond the neighborhood: the Muir Woods National Monument and the Marin Headlands, Lands’ End and the Point Reyes National Seashore. There are museums and aquariums and libraries close by, too.

“This is my heart’s work,” Bryant said, a wistful reminder of weekend trips decades ago over the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate with a grandmother who treated her to pumpkin ice cream on the other side.

She cannot find that taste here.

Whose harm to reduce?

In mid-December, Breed declared the Tenderloin “an emergency,” largely due to the soaring cases of drug-overdoses, which have exceeded the number of covid-19 deaths in this city by nearly double over the same time.

The most controversial element of the plan was Breed’s decision to send additional police officers into the Tenderloin, probably a couple dozen, which she said was necessary to help disrupt the much-photographed open-air drug trafficking. Breed is also seeking more than $22 million in additional overtime for police and fire departments.

She also wants officers to have easier, more timely access to surveillance camera footage in the Tenderloin. Voters here, historically leery of government surveillance, will probably decide through a ballot measure later this year whether she will get her way.

“All you heard during the emergency declaration hearings were people complaining about how we were treating those addicted to drugs, right?” Breed said during a recent interview at her City Hall office.

“And I was wondering: What about the people who live there, who are not addicted to drugs? What about the people who work there? What about the people who have been suffering for the longest with all of this? Where are their advocates? Why do they not have advocates?”

Breed’s critics on the left say she is criminalizing human despair — the homelessness, addiction and mental illness at the core of the Tenderloin’s problems, but not the underlying cause of them. Those who oppose Breed’s plan advocate for what’s called a harm-reduction approach to the crisis, rather than one that involves law enforcement.

Such an approach would emphasize social work and drug treatment over homeless encampment removal and small-scale drug arrests, treating it more as a public health emergency than one that requires arrests and jail time. City officials say more than 6,800 overdoses were prevented last year through the use of naloxone, a fast-acting nasal spray that counteracts the effects of potent opioids.

“I give credit to the mayor for stepping up and doing something — this is an emergency,” said David Campos, a Democrat and former county supervisor and police commissioner who will face an April runoff for a vacant state Assembly seat representing the Tenderloin. “But I don’t think arresting people is the solution.”

Breed is pushing the city’s Democrats in a direction that, at times, conflicts with the left’s most closely held orthodoxies. A member of the city’s dwindling Black community, she has had to alter some of her own long-held positions, particularly her life-learned skepticism around public safety and policing, in developing a Tenderloin plan with more law enforcement involved.

But she said the neighborhood’s rapidly declining condition have forced the change. Last year, according to San Francisco Police Department statistics, the number of murders, rapes and assault cases in the Tenderloin all jumped by double-digit percentages. The number of robberies declined.

“The main purpose of any leader, I believe of any city in this country, is to ensure the safety of the people that you represent,” Breed said. “And the fact is, when a line is crossed and there’s violence, there is a need for police officers — police officers to take the report, police officers to do the investigation and ultimately for police officers to make the arrests.”

The Tenderloin debate, and the larger questions about race, crime and policing that it implicates, has also set off a very angry, public argument among the city’s Democratic leadership, many of whose members have known each other for decades.

The White district attorney, Chesa Boudin, is facing a recall later this year. Three school board members were recalled this month after prioritizing — with campuses closed during an early peak in the pandemic — the renaming of more than three dozen San Francisco public schools while the board had yet to draft a plan to return thousands of students to classrooms.

Breed supported the school-board recall, which includes one member whom she initially appointed. The largest mainstream daily newspaper in the city used to the special election to remind voters that “competence matters, even for progressives.”

“We’re in an extreme period right now, and even though we have Mayor Breed and Chesa Boudin and everyone in office in this city is progressive, we have to govern,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener (D), whose district includes the Tenderloin. “At times that means leaving the ideological approach by the wayside as we focus on whether our transit system is running consistently and our schools are educating out kids.”

Adnan Alameri, a small-business owner and father of three, needs such an advocate. He voted for Breed, but he sees his neighborhood deteriorating quickly despite new resources, vigilance and social programs.

“I tell people I live in the Tenderloin and they are like, ‘Oh, okay, do you think we could meet somewhere else,’ ” said Alameri, who since immigrating from Yemen in 1993 has lived in the neighborhood with his family. “It’s like a war but we should be the ones deciding how to fight it. We are the ones who suffer so we should have the loudest voice.”

Alameri owns a 7-Eleven on the eastern edge of the Tenderloin, roughly five blocks from Twitter headquarters. His business calls unfold in a mix of English and Arabic, and on a recent afternoon, he is arranging a meeting between Tenderloin residents and the city Human Rights Commission.

The whiteboard in the employee area promotes an underlined “Cleanliness” on the list of store values. He is short, bald and grave.

In recent months, he has watched fellow markets begin to go-along to get-along, selling single cigarettes, carrying extra tin foil, selling glass pipes — all items useful to drug users. He doesn’t blame the business owners, whom he says are just doing what it takes to get by.

“They keep adding program after program — and all of it makes it worse,” Alameri said of the city government. “It feels like quicksand: the more money and programs that come here, the more problems and people it sucks in.”

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Hell or a haven?

The Tenderloin provides instant sensory overload, head spinning on arrival, even to those who have visited often. One element is the sidewalk chorus of a thousand voices, all seemingly talking to themselves. The rise and fall of many monologues, mostly the result of drug use or mental illness, serves as the neighborhood’s musical theme.

The chorus sang out one recent Monday morning, the aftermath of a weekend evident in U.N. Plaza. In the morning sun, City Hall’s brilliant white dome reflected winter daylight in a million directions.

The city power-washing trucks worked away, clearing up human waste and hypodermic needles that did not make the sanitary-disposal boxes affixed to public-toilet kiosks. A “clean-energy vehicle” — in this case, a public bus — zipped by soundlessly on Market Street.

“You were in my way, man, my way,” one young man shouted at another. “My way, my way. My way.”

It is the sound that a frail Black man at the top of the BART subway station escalator hears from his contorted posture, probably gripped by the early stages of a fentanyl rush. So, too, does the White man doubled over in a nearby bus shelter, rushing or withdrawing. Behind him, in silence, someone leans his head against the wall of an expensive hotel and vomits quietly.

Police officers in small groups survey the scene — and do little more.

Back to the streets of San Francisco

But there is some hope here, a line outside the Linkage Center, the just-opened clearinghouse for city housing, mental health and substance-abuse services. There are hot meals and, when the group Dignity on Wheels pulls up on Market Street, hauling a trailer full of portable showers and washing machines, there is a place to get cleaned up, too.

The leased building is across from U.N. Plaza, the most visible landmark so far of the social element to Breed’s Tenderloin plan. It is staffed to serve 100 people a day.

Outside, hidden from public sight by blue fencing, is an area where those at the center can use drugs to avoid severe withdrawal. There is no law yet allowing such a place — known as a safe-consumption site — but one is in the works in the State House.

“This is an overdose prevention site, and we are practicing harm-reduction here,” said Mary Ellen Carroll, who directs the city’s Department of Emergency Management and designed the emergency plan. “The question is how does what we are doing here turn the dial on what is happening inside the Tenderloin. That remains to be seen.”

Carroll is at the Linkage Center almost daily now, sometimes haunted as she was on a recent afternoon by a woman suffering mental illness with only the clothes on her back and no identification of any kind. She is among the nearly 2,500 people who have visited the center so far, about a fifth of whom have left with a referral to some city service.

The short-term priority is keeping her and many like her inside the center until even a temporary solution might be found for shelter, for a shower and snack, for an overdose prevented with naloxone. A dozen doses were administered in the center during its second week of operation alone.

“There are people who come in who can’t go for more than 30 minutes without using,” Carroll said. “We are trying to engage them and frankly with this population, if you don’t give them space to do what they need to do, you can’t engage for long.”

A future to fear

The Tenderloin has been a carnival within San Francisco’s cultural carnival for decades, a neighborhood of very young and very old, the newly arrived and the barely alive, Red Light district and political refuge.

In the 1970s, its lower-than-average property prices made it an affordable first stop for Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian refugees escaping war. Over the years, the mix has shifted. Latinos, many recently arrived from Central America, and Middle Eastern immigrants, many fleeing civil conflict in Yemen, have changed the cultural streetscape.

On a single block there’s “Korean Comfort Food,” Gulf Coast Mexican taquerias and Sudanese cuisine. The range of ethnicities is evident in the masked faces of the kindergartners who file, in best-behavior seriousness, through the halls of the Tenderloin Community School.

“The people who are coming to the Tenderloin, many of them, they’ve been displaced, they’ve been traumatized, they’ve experienced violence, they’ve gone in and out of institutions or jail or prison,” said Matt Haney, who lives in the neighborhood and represents it on the San Francisco board of supervisors. “They have been let down at every level in their lives.”

Here the city’s most concentrated population of people enduring homelessness and addiction live directly below $400-a-night hotel rooms and glamorous rooftop restaurants, a flickering fire pit as the centerpiece of each table.

Whole Foods will open soon across Market Street from the Linkage Center. A block down, the “Market on Market” caters to the nearby Twitter workforce, an expensive and expansive selection of international wines and other bougie fresh-food items filling the shelves. There’s a Trader Joe’s around another corner.

“What is especially painful is that it’s so close to such wealth and such innovation,” said Haney, who supported Breed’s plan and will face Campos in the April runoff for the open Assembly seat. “It’s new, it’s the future. And if the future looks like this you should rightfully be terrified.”

The neighborhood sometimes has the feel at times of a crisis zone, where disaster relief is being delivered, where food and medicines are being dispensed by a variety of volunteer groups.

There are the colored vests, for example, a staple of any crisis zone. The Tenderloin is ablaze with colored vests.

Most of the vested are from Urban Alchemy, a nonprofit working under a city contract that pays its employees to help clear and keep clean the Tenderloin streets. There are 450 of the Urban Alchemy workers in the neighborhood.

They wear black-and-green vests. Most have served time in prison, the organization’s credo being that “the best people to heal society are those who understand what it means to harm it.”

Small clear holders, containing a dose of naloxone, dangle from a loop on their vests.

It’s work that happens alongside the daily rituals of the Tenderloin’s residents. A little after 8 a.m. one recent morning, a squiggly group of schoolchildren line up in single file, a few stamping in anticipation, others silent with anxiety, outside the steamed-up windows of El Jefecito Laundry.

Time for school.

On this chilly day 11 children line up along Turk Street with Baby Yoda backpacks and Spider-Man lunchboxes, little parkas and big sweatshirts. This is their school bus, a chaperoned escort through the Tenderloin, past the addicts with foil and lighter flames in hand, past the ill and the hustlers.

“Line ‘em up guys, line ‘em up,” Aviaire Evans, a 33-year-old aerosol artist, calls out. “And …. we’re going to school, guys, let’s go.”

El Jefecito quickly behind them, the pedestrian bus edges up the crowded sidewalk toward Van Ness, where the brightly tiled Tenderloin Community School awaits. Evans, wearing the white vest of the Code Tenderloin group, shouts for the line to step right to avoid a smear of human waste, sending a flurry of rainbow running shoes and sparkly sneakers scampering out of the way.

Terrill Jones brings up the rear.

He is huge and, in his words, “every bit of 50 years old,” although he looks younger as he shepherds tiny stragglers across Turk. He has spent half his life in prison on robbery and weapons convictions. Out for three years now, he has traded Soledad State Prison for the Tenderloin.

“We’re gap fillers — finding the gaps in this neighborhood and stepping in,” said Jones, a member of the Code Tenderloin community group that runs the walking school bus. “I made an agreement with myself, and with God, that I would put the same energy I put into committing crimes into helping this community.”

This is the attritional nature of the Tenderloin project, military in its approach to secure and hold public areas. One proposal to help clear the streets is to give city authorities more authority to take people who cannot take care of themselves off the street, the legal process of conservatorship.

But the state law remains very restrictive and San Francisco has used conservatorship only twice in two years. City officials believe roughly 150 people should be candidates for conservator, still less than two percent of the city’s homeless population.

The crowd simply moves now around the Tenderloin, a parade of dealing, and addiction, and shelter-seeking that follows the paths of least resistance. The so-called balloon effect — when one part of a balloon is squeezed, another swells up — is as much an issue here as it is in the larger war on drugs.

“It’s still a whack-a-mole, push-people-in-a-circle situation,” said Charles Pitts, 50, a registered voter who has been homeless in the Tenderloin for the past four years.

Divide and hope

Although she did not grow up in the Tenderloin, Breed appears to take personally the conditions on its streets, something she has publicly cursed about in recent weeks. She noted angrily that Black people now account for about 4 to 5 percent of San Francisco’s population and an estimated 40 percent of its homeless, many on the Tenderloin’s streets.

Her brother, Napoleon Brown, is serving a 44-year prison sentence at the penitentiary in Vacaville for a manslaughter conviction. In 2000, Brown pushed a 25-year-old man, Lenties White, out of a robbery getaway car. White was killed by an oncoming car.

Six years later, on the eve of her 26th birthday, Breed’s younger sister died of a drug overdose.

Breed acknowledges the troubled history many San Francisco residents, especially those of color, have had with the city police. In the Plaza East project where she grew up, you didn’t talk to police, only avoid them, she said.

“My beliefs stem from how I grew up and where I grew up in poverty in this city — it wasn’t designed to be a part of any ideology,” she said. “It’s really based on what I saw, what I experienced.”

But her critics say her plan is simply a repeat of the nation’s “war on drugs,” a demand-first focus that punishes the addict, erecting with prison records and nuisance fines barriers insurmountable to even some of the most determined to recover.

“I will say that sadly, many of the very left-leaning progressives in the city who are politically active, they have a playbook,” Breed said. “And they use certain things as excuses as to what will or will not happen to incite fear in people.”

Among the most obvious divides over the Tenderloin is between Breed and the city’s elected district attorney, Chesa Boudin, a White Ivy League-educated liberal who grew up in a far different environment than the mayor.

Boudin’s parents were members of the Weather Underground, a far-left militant group founded in the late 1960s. When Boudin was just over a year old, his parents, David Gilbert and Kathy Boudin, were convicted of killing two police officers and a security guard during a bank robbery. Kathy Boudin was released from prison in 2003, Gilbert last year.

Now 41, Boudin was raised in Chicago by university professors Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, leaders of the Weather Underground, which the FBI once labeled a terrorist group.

He earned an undergraduate and a law degree from Yale and studied at Oxford University. In San Francisco, he worked as a public defender, leading a seminal case that challenged the paying of cash bail to secure a defendant’s pretrial release as unconstitutional.

Asked in a recent interview what he sees in the Tenderloin, Boudin said, “I see, first and foremost, San Francisco's most diverse community, the neighborhood that has the highest density of different immigrant groups and families of school age children.”

“I see a neighborhood that’s full of different ethnic cuisines, that adjoins our City Hall, and kind of glues together so many different neighborhoods,” he continued. “I see all that. And I see a neighborhood with tremendous resilience and one that has for decades been plagued by a combination of a very visible public health crisis and higher-than-average crime rates.”

In November 2019, Boudin ran successfully for district attorney after his predecessor, George Gascon, declined to seek reelection. Breed won her first full term as mayor on the same ballot.

Gascon went on to win the race for district attorney of Los Angeles County, where his prosecution philosophy, designed to reduce overzealous charging, mass incarceration, and excessive sentencing, were developed in large part in this city.

Boudin’s policies are largely consistent with Gascon’s. A new father of a 4-month-old, Boudin is viewed by his more conservative critics as too lenient on gun, gang, drugs and property crime.

Most recently, Boudin has come out against Breed’s decision to send more police to the Tenderloin.

Like many to the mayor’s left, he says more patrols will only punish homelessness and addiction, making it harder for those suffering most to build a life beyond the streets with the legacy of policy records or unpaid public nuisance fines. The small-time dealers, meanwhile, just cycle through. San Francisco police arrested more than 65 people last year on more than one occasion for drug dealing in the Tenderloin.

“Right now in San Francisco, it is easier to get high than it is to get help,” Boudin said, arguing that the city’s top priorities in the Tenderloin must be preventing fatal overdoses and increasing access to residential addiction treatment.

“The drug sales themselves are in many ways a symptom of a larger problem,” Boudin said. “Most of the residents that I speak with aren't particularly upset that there are drug sales happening there, but they are particularly upset with all of the collateral implications, with the groups of people congregating on corners, with the human misery.”

Boudin said his office has not seen drug arrests in the Tenderloin increase since the mayor sent more police there. But he said he prosecutes about 85 percent of the felony drug cases the police bring to his office, a rate that has risen steadily over the past two years.

He will face a recall election in June.

‘This is a God problem’

The fence around Boeddeker Park separates James Walker from his former life.

Tall and working up a slight sheen of sweat, Walker is on the park’s well-cared-for basketball court in work clothes, shooting a lunchtime round of hoops on a crisp, bright day.

This half-hour is a gratifying routine, a regular reminder to Walker of his three decades as an addict on these same streets and his dozen years clean.

Around the park perimeter a homeless camp has sprung up quickly, using the chain-link fence as support for cardboard lean-tos and tents. Pint-size vodka bottles, scorched tin foil and cigarette butts bump against the curb along the street.

When police and other city workers cleared the homeless from a postage stamp-sized park a few blocks away at Turk and Hyde, many simply moved here or farther up the street.

Walker knew those cycles for decades, the shifting geography of the drug trade and safe-sleep spots, before he became a husband, and a father to a daughter, and a limousine driver with a place to live on the far side of the Bay in Oakland.

He is 60 years old.

“So they will just fill all the jails — and then what? I was a part of all that and it did no good,” said Walker, who is Black and maintains many friendships with people still on the Tenderloin’s streets. “London Breed is not going to solve this problem. This is a God problem.”