As San Francisco remains on course for yet another record-setting year of overdose deaths — and as city officials, social service organizations, public health experts, and various branches of government debate the most effective and humane way to reduce the supply of fentanyl on our streets — two women whose lives have been upended by the potent opioid say they are at their wits end.
At around noon on May 26, the corner of Hyde and Turk in the Tenderloin was transformed from a well-known open air drug market into the site of a demonstration — which was billed as a protest against drug dealers — led by the women whose sons got hooked on fentanyl in the neighborhood.
Standing before a banner reading “STOP FENTANYL DEATHS,” Jacqui Berlinn, whose son has been addicted to fentanyl for a year, implored politicians to take action. “We can’t just ignore it. Our children are dying,” she said. “It’s just a matter of time before he’s gonna overdose, like so many of his friends.”
Another mom, Laurie Steves, of Washington state, said her daughter had been in the Tenderloin addicted to drugs for nine years. Her son died of an overdose last year.
The event, organized by Michael Shellenberger, a controversial environmental activist who has now turned his attention to drug overdoses and homelessness, was part media spectacle and part urban agora. People from various factions of San Francisco’s political spectrum — including several passersby who weren’t scheduled to speak — offered different ideas about how best to solve the city’s growing epidemic of overdose deaths. All in attendendance, however, were united in their belief that the city has to do more, quicker, to address a crisis that has already claimed 249 lives in the first four months of this year.
The first speaker was Tom Wolf, who was addicted to opioids and lived on the streets of the Tenderloin for much of 2018. “We’re not asking for a war on drugs,” he said. “We know that that’s failed. What we’re asking for is meaningful sanctions against repeat offending drug dealers. We can provide them with services to do whatever we can to turn them away from drug dealing going forward.” He added that to achieve those ends, “We need the cooperation of our district attorney, we need cooperation of our superior court to affect prosecutorial outcomes.”
San Francisco Supervisors Matt Haney and Ahsha Safaí were headliners, reiterating their commitment to changing City Hall’s approach to drug dealing and treatment of substance abuse disorders, and asking for the support of other city leaders.
Safaí shared that the average stay in the “hundreds” of city-run rehab facilities is seven days. For Safaí this “revolving door” highlights the need for abstinence-based treatment options, which the city does not currently fund due to its adherence to the harm-reduction model of drug treatment. “The community is asking for abstinence based treatment,” Safaí said, adding that he’s especially hearing that call from “the Black and brown community.”
Safaí is introducing a proposal to fund a new 100-bed abstinence-only treatment program for people compelled into treatment through the criminal justice system. He said the program will require the cooperation of District Attorney Chesa Boudin, Public Defender Mano Raju, and the Adult Probation Board.
Haney highlighted the Tenderloin community’s outrage at the amount of drug dealing and death occurring in the neighborhood. “Don’t say that the Tenderloin allows this. They hate this. They want this out of here. It’s killing their neighbors. It’s killing their friends. It’s not OK,” he said. He reiterated his effort to train all staff at single-room occupancy hotels in using opioid reversing drugs like Narcan, and also called for more foot patrols by police.
“When we look over here right now and we see nobody dealing drugs, nobody dealing fentanyl, right here across the street, this is how it should be every day,” Haney said. Along Turk Street, where Haney gestured, green-vested city workers seemed equal in number to civilians. Three police officers stood watching the scene across Hyde.
After Haney spoke, a woman who chose to remain anonymous criticized him for supporting Boudin, whom she hopes to recall for “ruining this low-income, people-of-color community.” Behind her, a man held a sign reading “Recall Chesa Boduin [sic].”
An audience member, who later introduced herself as Olga Miranda, president of SEIU Local 87, fired back, saying, “You can’t just blame one elected official. It’s part of the institution.”
While she said she sympathized with Berlinn, who is white, Miranda criticized the premise of the whole event. “Now that there are people that are more affluent, that are white that are falling on the streets, that are falling addicted to the same poisons as Black and brown people, now people are saying this is an outrage,” Miranda said.
Miranda described how the day-to-day conditions have deteriorated in the 25 years she’s lived in the Tenderloin. “You have to take your strollers home full of crap, literal human feces. Syringes at the park. It’s horrible for these children.”
In between speakers, Michael Shellenberger said San Francisco has a lot to learn from other cities. “Amsterdam, Lisbon, Vienna, Frankfurt, Zurich, they’ve all dealt with open-air drug scenes the exact same way. It’s always a combination of services and law enforcement,” he said. Shellenberger argued for an “abstinence contingency” approach to helping people break free of their addiction, which would require homeless people to get clean before getting permanent housing. “Everybody has a right to shelter. But getting your own studio apartment is a reward for abstinence,” he said. “There’s a carrot and a stick.”
This approach would be a huge change from the city’s current harm-reduction approach to drugs and housing-first approach to homelessness. Many people in the city, including many political leaders, would disagree with Shellenberger’s proposals.
Haney addressed that, too.
“There’s a lot of people here and we don’t agree on a lot of things. We agree that fentanyl is a death sentence. And there’s nothing more urgent than stopping this epidemic and crisis in San Francisco right now. We all have to do more, including me.”