I VISITED SAN FRANCISCO IN MID-SEPTEMBER when the city choked under wildfire ashes. In the dark orange haze, I saw young men and women leaning against graffitied walls, sticking needles into their arms or torching crumply pieces of aluminum foil so they could smoke fentanyl or crack cocaine. I watched a man desperately sift through burnt pieces of foil, hoping to find one more hit of fentanyl in the residue. I also saw Hondurans, most who looked as young as teenagers, standing watch on street corners. They’re part of organized gangs who commute to downtown from Oakland to sell drugs.
Not everyone buying drugs in the Tenderloin is homeless: I saw a middle-aged man swerve into a no-parking spot in a gleaming black Lincoln MKS and call out, “Hey, mama!” to an elderly Asian woman with a stooped back and red-checkered Vans. The man popped out of his car with a fistful of cash. The woman pocketed the money, dropped several white pills into his cupped palm, and within minutes, the man and his Lincoln were gone. Two blocks away, I saw a similar exchange between a fresh-faced yuppie and an older, hoodie-wearing man—a quick flash of hands, and they calmly walked on like nothing had happened. All these incidents happened less than two blocks away from City Hall and the FBI office.
Has compassion run amok in San Francisco? Though police officers still arrest drug dealers—mostly targeting people with outstanding felony warrants, large amounts of illegal drugs, and/or court-mandated “stay away” orders—the court regularly releases suspects even as their cases are still pending. District Attorney Chesa Boudin, an open socialist who ran his campaign on restorative justice over imprisonment, has been pressuring the mayor and city supervisors to stop policing drug-related offenses, saying jail is an ineffective solution.
But the city has not decided on a better alternative, and the result is a public health and humanitarian disaster that affects everyone. One Tenderloin resident told me she wears her headphones every time she walks outside so she can shut out the drug dealers and panhandlers. Yet she, like many San Franciscans, says that’s better than jailing people: They point to the failed War on Drugs that did little to address the human despair behind addiction, and they point to the racial and socioeconomic disparities of mass incarceration. They also speak of civil liberties.
“We want to respect people’s decisions to live their own lives, even if we find their choices distasteful,” she told me. “At what point do we stop putting our privileged sensibilities above their desires to just be free and do their thing?” Yet she’s also become desensitized, she admitted: “You have to—otherwise, you can’t function.”