‘Conspiracy’ keeps misery in Tenderloin, new supe says
On day two of their job, most supervisors are arranging furniture, hanging pictures and figuring out the city’s email system. Matt Haney, on the other hand, was spinning conspiracy theories.
As we recorded the latest episode of The Chronicle podcast “San Francisco City Insider,” one answer in particular proved surprising. I asked him if it’s fair to call his District Six — the Tenderloin, Mid-Market and South of Market — a containment zone for the city’s ills.
Is City Hall OK with open-air injection drug use and dealing, human feces and dirty needles on the sidewalks, homeless camps and general filth as long as the misery doesn’t spill over the district’s borders?
Yes, that’s the case, he said. And it’s even worse than that.
“It’s a conspiracy, and everybody’s in on it,” he said.
Wait, what? Was he being sarcastic? Nope.
“I do think it’s a conspiracy,” he repeated. “The fact that we’ve accepted that reality without the level of urgency and creativity and relentlessness from our city apparatus, I think suggests that there’s been some recognition that it’s going to be that way, and that City Hall’s OK with that ...
“If you were shooting up in the Marina or Noe Valley, I actually think there would be a response and something would happen,” he continued. “It’s bureaucratic indifference and inertia, and I will challenge that.”
His insistence made me think. The word “conspiracy” conjures images of Mayor London Breed, the police chief and other leaders chuckling in a darkened back room at City Hall as they agree to ignore the crime and human misery in the Tenderloin and SoMa if it means continued voter support from nicer neighborhoods. Maybe they’re tossing back whiskey shots as they hatch their evil plans.
I assure you that’s not happening. Breed has devoted her attention to District Six, ordering more frequent street cleaning and sending in the new Poop Patrol, installing better streetlights and trash cans, boosting police foot patrols and demanding drug dealers be arrested.
“That’s my focus and my administration’s focus, and any suggestion otherwise is ridiculous,” she said.
But I also understand Haney’s point. If I were raising my boys in the Tenderloin — the neighborhood with the most children per capita in the entire city — I would be irate. I’d be mad that drug dealers openly hawk their wares outside the children’s playground at Boeddeker Park and, if arrested, are often released very quickly, only to return to the same spot.
I’d be mad that my children would have to dodge people who are high out of their minds or extremely mentally ill and never get much long-term help from City Hall. I’d be mad my kids would need to skip over dirty needles and piles of excrement like other kids skip rope.
And worst of all, I’d know that if this scene were dropped like a weird sci-fi movie into Noe Valley or Cole Valley, it would not be allowed to fester. No way. “We have low-income families and residents and seniors, and they are pissed,” Haney said. “We’re not just talking about the condo folks who are also pissed. My folks in the Tenderloin are the most pissed!”
Haney, too, is pissed. For five years, he’s rented an apartment on Hyde Street in the Tenderloin — on the very stretch the New York Times recently named the dirtiest block in San Francisco.
Shortly before Christmas, I attended a community meeting some longtime SoMa residents and small business owners arranged with Haney, weeks before he was even on the job.
Jeremiah Almond, wearing a Santa hat, talked about the difficulty of running a small business in the area. He operates a printing company out of a building he owns on Howard Street and rents out two other commercial spaces. But one of those has been vacant for a year because potential tenants keep being turned off by the misery outside.
“I don’t want to say scuzzy or scummy, but it’s pretty disgusting,” he said, noting people inject needles into their feet outside, deal drugs, pitch tents and drop their pants to relieve themselves right outside his glass windows. He coined the phrase “standing zombies” for the people who are high on drugs and appear to be asleep but remain standing, swaying side to side.
“What do they call it with air quotes? A world-class city? More like a world-class problem city,” the San Francisco native lamented, saying he calls the police regularly, and they usually just shrug.
Joel Smith, an architect who’s lived on Tehama Street for 12 years, said he’d been most bothered by the huge uptick in open-air drug use in the past couple of years, with people shooting up in his doorway and leaving their needles on the sidewalk. He recently found a bag with hundreds of dirty needles inside and took it to a local needle exchange.
“They’re not abashed or ashamed about it at all,” he said of drug users. “They do it out in the open, and when they’re confronted, they say, ‘Yeah, what are you going to do about it?’ ”
Smith, in turn, wants to know what Haney is going to do about it. He and many residents in District Six think former Supervisor Jane Kim ignored their complaints in favor of headlinemaking moves such as working for free City College and a higher minimum wage. Haney promised to be different from his predecessor.
“I’m looking forward and turning the page to be a neighborhood supervisor working on micro-issues, block by block,” Haney told the group. “The status quo in District Six is completely unacceptable. It’s unfathomable. We are going to be relentless on bringing about change.”
Kim, who is taking time off before deciding her next professional move, told me it’s common for supervisors to start off focused on neighborhood concerns and then shift to addressing citywide problems. She said she was able to handle both and pointed to a new, protected bike lane on Howard Street as a recent neighborhood improvement she guided.
As for Haney’s conspiracy theory, Kim said City Hall directs myriad resources to the district.
“But it’s not enough,” she said. “Do I think certain behavior is more accepted in our district? Absolutely. The open air drug dealing is a great example of that.”
In our podcast interview, Haney listed some examples of changes he wants to see — far more drug outreach workers roaming the streets of District Six and a program to encourage injection drug users to return their dirty needles.
“People return cans and get 5 cents, right?” he said.
He also wants Breed to select a site in every district for a homeless Navigation Center rather than continuing to build the enhanced shelters only in Districts Six, Nine and 10. Breed’s spokesman said her administration is actively looking for additional sites around the city.
One thing’s for sure, Haney has the toughest job of any new city supervisor. And if he sticks with his outspokenness on the wretchedness of his district, he’s going to make life for the mayor and other City Hall leaders plenty tough too.
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Heather Knight appears Sundays and Tuesdays. Email: hknight @sfchronicle.com Twitter: @hknightsf
S.F. Supervisors Shamann Walton (left) of District 10 and Matt Haney of District Six chat Tuesday at City Hall during their first meeting in office.