San Francisco man documents Tenderloin's fentanyl crisis, tries to stop overdose deaths

His uses social media to shed light on San Francisco's fentanyl crisis

Lyanne Melendez Image
Thursday, February 2, 2023
SF man trying to stop overdose deaths in the Tenderloin
ABC7 walked through San Francisco's Tenderloin with J.J. Smith, a man who documents what he sees on the streets to shed light on the fentanyl crisis.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- This is the story of one San Francisco man using "compassion" rather than "criticism," "caring" instead of "neglect" for those too addicted to care for themselves.

J.J. Smith engages with everyone he meets.

"Hey Kiana!"

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Lyanne: "You know everybody."

J.J. Smith: "Yeah."

Lyanne: "Everybody knows you?"

J.J.: "Yeah."

Lyanne: "What do they think of you?"

J.J.: "They are just like me."

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And so my journey with J.J. Smith began through the embattled Tenderloin, born and raised in San Francisco and living in this neighborhood.

Lyanne: "What's it going to take for this epidemic, the fentanyl epidemic to stop, go away?"

J.J.: "Treatment on demand."

Lyanne: "But they don't want treatment - many of them - you say in the video."

In one video he posted on social media, he tries to convince Noah to go into treatment.

J.J.: "Noah, you need to get some help."

Noah: "I know. I'm sorry. I'm kinda zoning out and getting worse."

J.J.: "If it's getting worse, let's do something about it."

Lyanne: "Do you think they should be forced into treatment?"

J.J.: "No, nobody should be forced to get drug treatment but you don't give up on a person because they say not to it. You ask them the next day and the next day."

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For J.J. Smith, those "next days" often turn into weeks and months. He posts many of his interactions with drug users on social media to show others that compassion can bring understanding.

In another video, he tries to help a 20-year-old named Josh, hooked on fentanyl and in pain.

J.J.: "What's wrong? Your arm?"

Josh: "Yeah."

J.J.: "Which one? This one?"

Josh: "Yeah."

J.J.: "Do you need to go to the hospital?"

Josh: "Yeah."

J.J.: " C'mon, let's go."

He later told us why Josh was in pain.

"He had an abscess, an infection on the side of his arm," explained J.J.

Smith keeps an eye on many of them, as if they were his own kids.

The success stories are few and far between.

VIDEO: Here's what it takes to survive SF's Tenderloin District

Brad Reiss of lived on the streets of San Francisco's Tenderloin. He survived by being shot twice and started a nonprofit to help those on the street.

He posted about Ethan, 23-year-old from Kentucky who is now living in a shelter.

J.J.: "How's the shelter for you?"

Ethan: "It's alright, it's a place to stay."

"I've been working with him quite some time. I got him into a shelter but pretty soon he's going to be transitioning from the shelter to a program," said J.J.

He assures me that most of them are not from San Francisco.

"Well, some of them came here during the pandemic because they knew it was free access to drugs here and San Francisco gives out a lot of assistance," he added.

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Then there are those like 19-year-old Noah who have been lost to fentanyl for awhile. He posted the time he sat Noah down to clean his face while he's nodding off.

Holding back tears he finds it hard to talk about Noah.

"Oh my God, yes Noah. Noah is kind of special to me cause I've been working with Noah for so long. No kid that is 19 years old should be hooked on drugs as much as he is," he explains.

Lyanne: "So your approach is man-to-man approach here. Is that practical? Can I do it? Can other people do it? Could the supervisor for this district and his staff do it? Yes they can do it. It's easy. Why don't they?"

J.J.: "They feel as if this is a containment zone. Let's keep everything here as it is. They just don't care."

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