San Francisco Mayor Declares State of Emergency to Fight City’s ‘Nasty Streets’

It’s a highly unusual move by a liberal mayor in one of the country’s most liberal cities.,

It’s a highly unusual move by a liberal mayor in one of the country’s most liberal cities.

SAN FRANCISCO — The mayor of San Francisco on Friday made a sharp break with the liberal conventions that have guided her city for decades, declaring a state of emergency in one of its most crime-infested neighborhoods.

Mayor London Breed’s announcement came just days after she emphasized the need for the police to clean up what she has described as “nasty streets.” At a news conference at City Hall, steps away from where drug dealers openly peddle fentanyl and methamphetamines, she said, “We are in a crisis and we need to respond accordingly.” She added, “Too many people are dying in this city, too many people are sprawled on our streets.”

The neighborhood, the Tenderloin, has been ground zero for drug dealing, overdose deaths and homelessness for years. But Ms. Breed said in an interview that she reached her “breaking point” in recent weeks after meeting with families with children who live in the Tenderloin and said they felt constantly threatened.

Her actions and startlingly blunt language were a marked change in tone and policy in a city that has been polarized over homeless encampments and open-air drug use. Elected as a liberal Democrat, she spoke this week about “a reign of criminals,” trash strewn across neighborhoods full of “feces and urine,” and shoplifting at high-end stores that she called “mass looting events.”

Joe D’Alessandro, president and chief executive of the San Francisco tourism bureau, said the city had an image problem and praised the mayor for addressing it.

“We are excited and enthusiastic to see some significant steps to make San Francisco a safer city,” he said. “People are just fed up with some of the stuff they’ve seen and want to see some action.”

The announcement of a state of emergency specifically targeted the drug overdose crisis: More than twice as many people died of drug overdoses in San Francisco last year as died from the coronavirus. But Friday’s announcement is part of a broader, aggressive push to crack down on drug dealing and improve conditions. In practical terms, Ms. Breed said the city would no longer tolerate illicit drug users in the streets — giving them a choice between treatment or arrest.

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The Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco on Friday.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Earlier this week, Ms. Breed acknowledged that many of her progressive constituents would push back on her efforts, but she said, “We can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result.” She said San Francisco was a compassionate place, one that prided itself on second chances. “But we are not a city where anything goes,” she said.

The conditions in San Francisco have been fodder nationally for Fox News and other conservative outlets as signs of disarray supposedly created by liberal governance. In San Francisco, opponents of the district attorney, Chesa Boudin, have tried to leverage a perception of disorder and high-profile incidents of retail theft to further a recall effort. This week, Ms. Breed used more strident language than even her city’s harshest critics.

Her announcement came as mayors across the country are grappling with a rise in gun violence, homicides and overdose deaths.

Ms. Breed detailed a list of initiatives intended to disrupt street sales of stolen goods, expand police surveillance powers and pressure those who use drugs into treatment. Ms. Breed said that declaring a state of emergency would cut through red tape and increase funding to the police, who she said had already started arresting “people who have been holding this neighborhood hostage” during felony warrant sweeps.

Some who work in the Tenderloin said they were heartened by Ms. Breed’s announcement.

A block away from a deserted playground, Hanh Huynh, 33, said that the Vietnamese grocery store where she works was frequently robbed, and that she had recently moved because she worried about raising her 2-year-old in the area. Ali Baalouach, 44, said homeless people often stole the food he sold at his father’s halal grocery store. “I love the mayor,” he said. “Listen to her, follow the rules and do what you have to do.”

Fatou Sadio, 37, who lives two blocks from the Tenderloin and frequently shops in the area, said she was happy about the crackdown on drugs and homelessness. “You step out of your door and you have to be careful,” she said, “because somebody’s sleeping there, using needles, pooping there.”

But not everyone welcomed the news from the mayor.

“It is absolutely clear to everyone who lives or works in the Tenderloin that we need to be doing more,” said Laura Thomas, the director of Harm Reduction Policy for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, adding that increased criminalization and coerced treatment do not work. “We don’t have enough services, we don’t have enough housing, we don’t have enough shelter beds.”

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Laura Thomas, the director of Harm Reduction Policy for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, said that increased criminalization and coerced treatment do not work.Credit…Garrett Leahy

Ms. Thomas said the city should put its energy into rolling out existing initiatives, like one that would expand mental health care, and developing supervised injection sites, which reduce overdose deaths. The mayor also promised to address quality-of-life issues by repairing broken streetlights and removing trash and human waste.

The Declaration of Emergency must be ratified by the city’s Board of Supervisors within the next seven days, and would remain in effect for no longer than 90 days.

Crime statistics provided by the San Francisco Police Department show that several categories of crime are down since 2019, the last year before the pandemic, though homicides have increased to 53 this year from 37 in 2019, in keeping with a national increase.

There have been almost 29,000 reports of larceny in San Francisco this year, an increase over last year but well below the nearly 40,000 larcenies reported in the same period of 2019.

Burglaries were up sharply in 2020 but have declined slightly this year; motor vehicle thefts also spiked in 2020 and have stayed about the same this year. Retail theft is more difficult to track because it is made up of several different crimes, but local news reports have said that San Francisco has consistently been one of the top 10 cities for retail theft nationwide, and suggested that the retail industry has exaggerated the financial impact.

Public perception of crime is often at odds with reality, but it can and does shape policy.

In an interview at City Hall after her news conference on Friday, Ms. Breed brushed aside critics who say that the statistics do not show a crime wave in San Francisco.

“The data doesn’t matter when somebody randomly walks up to you who is on crystal meth and socks you in the face and puts you in the hospital,” she said. “The data doesn’t matter when you are here in San Francisco on vacation and all your belongings were stolen because someone broke into a car right in front of you.”

“At the end of the day people have to feel safe in this city,” she said.

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Hanh Huynh said people in the Tenderloin neighborhood frequently robbed the Vietnamese grocery store where she works.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Blocks away from the mayor’s announcement, dozens sat out on the streets or in tents, bundled up against the cold. Workers in the Tenderloin say that it is a daily occurrence for homeless people to shoot up, leave human feces on the street and scream and yell at odd hours.

“It’s a huge challenge,” said Robin Bell, the lead administrator at an affordable housing complex next to a syringe access service. “It’s sad, so many homeless and mental health issues that need to be addressed.”

Ms. Bell, 58, said the constant chaos made her afraid to go outside. She has instead been taking lunch breaks at her desk for more than a year.

Some of the homeless people living in the Tenderloin disregarded the mayor’s announcement. “It’s grandstanding,” said Tom O’Doherty, 48, who said he was homeless and living on nearby Treasure Island but often came to the Tenderloin to hang out with friends. Mr. O’Doherty and his friends were fixing up their bicycles and playing music near their friend’s tent, while a few others nearby smoked methamphetamine.

He said the spot on the street was like the bar from “Cheers,” with regulars coming and going. His friend, Jeff Crowell, 65, downplayed the crime and said it was minor compared with cities like Chicago or Atlanta. And Mr. O’Doherty said that whenever the police came into an area and swept out the homeless people and drugs, they simply moved a few blocks away.

“It’s like playing Whac-a-Mole,” he said.

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