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Drug Users Are in TL to Stay 

Wednesday, Aug 26 2015
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They're outside on the corner when John Lorenz leaves his girlfriend's Tenderloin apartment in the morning; they're there when he returns. Sometimes he catches them on a shift change — like union workers clocking out after their eight hours, they're punctual. "Regular as clockwork," he told me recently.

"They" are a couple of teenage males — Honduran, says Lorenz, comfortable enough to engage them in small talk — who come into San Francisco from the East Bay for work. They're parked on the street corner, selling drugs.

On Eddy and Larkin, they sell prescription pills — oxycodone for pain or benzodiazepines for anxiety — to old men who hobble down the block from their rooms at an SRO hotel. At Turk and Leavenworth, they sell heroin to addicts who come from San Mateo County or Marin and enter the Tenderloin knowing they can score. Near UN Plaza, they sell crack; everywhere in between, they sell meth. (Marijuana, barely illegal these days, stays down on Market Street. More foot traffic, more tourists, more sales).

They move around, they ebb and flow. They grow up or get busted but are always replaced by someone else. They have been a fact of life in the Tenderloin for as long as anyone can remember — and realistically, there isn't anything anyone can do about them.

This is something city officials know but refuse to publicly admit. When the TL's drug problem comes up, what you hear instead is something about "the 4,000 children who live in the Tenderloin" — an exaggeration; the real total for zip code 94102, which also includes Hayes Valley, is 3,300 — and how the drug trade must be stopped for their sake.

The reality is that despite appearances, they're winning. Some of the Tenderloin's infamous drug trade has gone away — not locked up in San Quentin, but migrated out, gone to wherever it is low-income people go when they leave San Francisco.

"The areas of open air drug markets in the Tenderloin have shrunk considerably," says Lorenz. A recovering heroin addict who has lived in the neighborhood for decades and worked for several years with the SF Drug Users Union, Lorenz has noticed one significant change agent. "The Tenderloin," he says, "has fewer and fewer SROs."

Fewer places for poor folk means fewer customers. Gentrification, it seems, has provided a solution to the demand side of the supply and demand equation.

However, the neighborhood's nature means that the demand will never be eliminated. Halfway houses for the recently incarcerated, nonprofit-run housing for the recently homeless, privately run SROs for anyone with enough crumpled dollars to pay for a room — there's a waystation for every one of life's struggles on nearly every TL block.

It will remain this way seemingly forever. It's hard to quantify — three different city agencies were unable to provide a figure — but as much of 25 percent of the housing units in the neighborhood are owned or operated by nonprofits that cater to low-income people.

This means the Tenderloin will permanently be at least partially low-income. And low-income people, people with no job prospects, people with trauma in their lives, people who are sick or old or in pain are the type of people who use drugs.

"People use drugs," Lorenz says, "because they work."

The question for the city and society, then, is what to do with the people who use them.

For years, the answer was put them behind bars. An old-school narc unit Tenderloin sweep was one of George Gascón's first moves as police chief.

Now, Gascón is one of California's most liberal district attorneys and gives TED talks on how the drug war has failed. Frank Carrubba, the head of Gascón's new Crime Strategies Unit — one of only two in the United States — talks about identifying and going after big players to reduce the flow of drugs into the neighborhood.

"You have to cut off the head of the snake," Carrubba says, "otherwise you're just chasing your tail."

San Francisco police, on the other hand — no friends of Gascón, after the Gascón-endorsed Prop. 47 reduced most petty drug-related crimes to misdemeanors — appear happy to take care of drug crime the old-fashioned way.

With the help of the local United States Attorney, a joint SFPD-DEA task force picked up several dozen repeat offenders in 2014, low-level dealers busted time and again for slinging a few grams in the neighborhood. ("They were selling to support their families," Lorenz says. "They were trying to feed their kids.") They've been charged in federal court, where they'll be subject to mandatory minimums; they're also all black, and are fighting the charges on the basis of selective prosecution.

San Francisco police did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but a recent review of arrests made by police from Tenderloin Station reveals drugs as a constant. Five busts out of 22 arrests made on a recent Wednesday were drug-related; on that Friday, the number was 13 out of 30.

It could be much higher. I walk west with Lorenz towards his apartment. On our way, we step over a pair of fresh, unused hypodermic needles. "Those look like ours," Lorenz says, referring to some of the 18,000 needles the Drug Users' Union gives away monthly.

A few blocks away from where the U.S. Attorney and DEA have their offices on Golden Gate Avenue, we pass a group of people gathered on camp chairs in front of a vacant storefront. They have hypodermic needles out, drawing from a dark, oily substance in bottlecaps.

It's three o'clock in the afternoon.

Later, walking by myself back east, I encounter a group of schoolkids being escorted through the neighborhood by volunteers in fluorescent vests. As I stop to watch, I make eye contact with a solitary man leaning against a building. He's quick to act. "Oxy! Oxy!" he shouts at me before I turn away and keep walking. (The interaction makes me second-guess my appearance and wonder: Do I look like I need a fix today?)

The Tenderloin is also one of the few places I can name — maybe the only place — where an "out" drug user has anything resembling political power.

"We need a voice politically," says Lorenz, who knows firsthand how easy it is to marginalize a hard drug user. "If you go to family court, and the other person says, 'He's a drug user!' — you are fucked. Fucked!"

"It's easier to say," he says, "that you're a transgender sex worker than it is to say you are a drug user."

This power is measured in the tiniest of victories. Though a supervised safe injection site has been rejected time and again by City Hall, the Drug Users' Union has managed to preserve a needle exchange program, and to expand it to 2.7 million fresh rigs given away every year.

This self-determination has been a long time coming — and is extremely tenuous.

On a recent Saturday night, I meet up with Isaac Jackson. A tall, powerful-looking black man, Jackson freely admits to using drugs — "self-medicating" depression with methamphetamine to the extent that it cost him his job and apartment two decades ago; then-Mayor Gavin Newsom's homeless outreach teams got Jackson off the street 10 years ago.

He still uses whenever he feels the need today, and he is not apologetic about it.

"We are part of the city — we've been here for years," he says. "We deserve to be treated with dignity and respect."

It has not been easy. Two years ago, city public health officials floated the idea of doing for crack users what's been done for intravenous drug users for years: hand out free, clean crack pipes, with the possibility of intervention along with the contact. Mayor Ed Lee rejected the idea out of hand. Jackson, funded by a mystery "private donor," took up the cause and has been handing out 60 free pipes a week in the neighborhood, he told me. Usually, they are gone in under an hour.

"You won't ever stop people from using drugs," he tells me. He flashes a knowing smile. "You're as likely to dismantle the Pentagon and put up a 'palace of peace.' It's just not going to happen."

The questions left, then, are where and how people will use them. For now, the answer to the former is the Tenderloin.

Jackson and I part ways after the coffee shop closes. Before going home, I look down Polk Street towards Geary. In the distance, standing on the corner, two young-looking men with brown skin are hanging out outside a building.

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About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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