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San Francisco mayor declares state of emergency over opioid overdoses, violent crime in Tenderloin

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SAN FRANCISCO — The mayor of San Francisco has declared a state of emergency in the Tenderloin in an effort to bring down overdose deaths and violent crime in one of the city’s poorest and most drug-infested neighborhoods.

Mayor London Breed said at a Friday news conference attended by the police chief and other public health personnel that rapid drug intervention is needed because about two people a day are dying of overdoses, mostly from fentanyl, in the Tenderloin and the city’s South of Market neighborhood.

The Tenderloin has long been an epicenter of homelessness and drug use, but city officials said the problem has worsened as the national opioid crisis escalated over the course of the pandemic.

“This is a public health emergency demanding a crisis level response, with massive urgency, coordination, and determination to confront this epidemic,” Breed said, adding that she hopes the measure will save lives.

If approved in the next seven days by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the state of emergency will allow the city to speed up implementation of emergency programs such as waiving contract procurement rules and zoning and planning codes in order to quickly open a site where people with substance abuse issues can get treatment and get off the street, the mayor’s office said.

“We’re really happy to finally see the mayor address what has been escalating in the neighborhood for months,” said Elise Gorberg, a spokesperson for the nonprofit Tenderloin Community Benefit District. “Politics aside, Tenderloin residents have been living in unacceptable conditions for far too long — these are business owners, immigrants, families with children — and the city owes it to these people to take action.”

Gorberg said the neighborhood needs more than “one-off” responses to incidents and that a coordinated, comprehensive approach is necessary to address the violence and drug abuse.

“Residents deserve a neighborhood where they feel safe walking to work or to schools and playgrounds, without the threat of gun violence or the need to step into the street to avoid drug activity,” she said.

The mayor’s announcement is a step in the right direction, Gorberg said.

City officials also pledged there would be more coordinated enforcement of illegal activities, street cleanups and other infrastructure improvements to make the neighborhood safer.

“Everyone in theory can talk about all the policies they want around ‘no police’ and ‘defund the police,’ … but at the end of the day, if someone beat your kid like that 11-year-old girl, who are you going to call to protect you?” Breed said.

She was referring to a Muslim girl in a hijab who was punched in the head on Sept. 29 by a woman who made racist comments. She was arrested for assault, child endangerment and a hate crime.

Breed’s announcement came a few days after she pledged to crack down on open drug use, brazen home break-ins and other criminal behavior that she says have made a mockery of the city’s famed tolerance and compassion.

San Francisco is grappling with deep societal pains common to any large U.S. city.

A high percentage of an estimated 8,000 homeless people in San Francisco — many of whom pitch tents in the Tenderloin — are struggling with chronic addiction or severe mental illness, often both. Some people rant in the streets, nude and in need of medical help. Last year, 712 people died of drug overdoses, compared with 257 people who died of COVID-19.

Critics said Breed was backing down on a promise made last year to cut police funding amid a national reckoning of police and systemic racism.

“Folks can say what they want about this going back on your word, this and that, but at the end of the day the people in this community are not safe. And it is not fair and it’s not right,” the mayor said.

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