Why is it so hard to clean up the Tenderloin? It's complicated

Watch the ABC7 Original '50 Blocks: Stories from the Tenderloin'

ByJuan Carlos Guerrero KGO logo
Friday, July 1, 2022
50 Blocks: Stories from the Tenderloin
About 800 homeless people from the Tenderloin district have been housed since San Francisco's mayor declared an emergency in the area. But housing the remaining homeless population, many of whom suffer from drug addiction, has proved challenging.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- This is the day John Dwyer had been dreaming about since he learned he was moving to a new home.

"I'm excited. I'm almost overwhelmed," said Dwyer as he got on an elevator to go up to the second floor of the Garland Hotel.

For the past ten years, Dwyer had been living in the Baldwin Hotel, a single residency hotel on 6th Street operated by the Tenderloin Housing Clinic as supportive housing for formerly homeless people.

The Baldwin has 183 rooms but none with an in-unit bathroom. Residents have to share toilets and showers on each floor.

"When I went to the bathroom in the Baldwin, I had to look out for needles. People overdose in the bathrooms there," said Dwyer, who was homeless and addicted to drugs before he found housing at the Baldwin.

The Garland promises to be a much different experience. The room is twice the size of where Dwyer lived before. It also has a small kitchenette and a sink, which he did not have before.

But, he is most excited about the bathroom.

"This is my own bathroom," said Dwyer while showing us his new room. "I can soak in the tub. I can take a shower. I don't have to wait for nobody. And the toilet, that's my own throne."

John Dwyer celebrates as he moves into an apartment at the Garland Hotel, a supportive housing residence for formerly homeless people.
John Dwyer celebrates as he moves into an apartment at the Garland Hotel, a supportive housing residence for formerly homeless people.

The 80 rooms at the Garland feel more like a regular apartment.

"I call it SRO 2.0," said Randy Shaw, director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which also operates the newly renovated Garland Hotel.

The THC manages 25 supportive housing properties in San Francisco.

"The people who are coming in are mostly formerly homeless. There are a lot of challenges with that population, particularly as people are coming in off the street," explained Shaw.

Since the Tenderloin Emergency Initiative in December of 2021, the city has housed more than 800 individuals who were homeless in the Tenderloin area.

"800 people off the street in one neighborhood in a matter of four months is significant," said Mary Ellen Carroll, executive director for San Francisco's Department of Emergency Management.

The initiative began as a way to address the overdose epidemic.

Since the pandemic began, there have been twice as many overdose deaths in the city than deaths attributed to Covid-19.

As a response, the city created the Linkage Center, now called the Tenderloin Center, where homeless people could go to get food, do laundry, take a shower and inquire about housing and social services.

About 400 people use the center on a daily basis.

"What we're doing is connecting with people and telling them, 'We want to help you,'" explained Carroll. "The question is, has it made a difference for the overall community and that is still yet to be determined."

The Tenderloin Center has faced criticism for allowing people to use drugs at the site.

"Our number one goal is to get folks in the door. And we have to accept the reality that people are in different stages of their thinking about substance use," said Krista Gaeta who oversees the center for the Department of Public Health.

Gaeta said staff is there to observe people use drugs and they can administer methadone to prevent an overdose.

"While we are there we start to have conversations with them. We offer a hot meal. We give them things they need. It's an opportunity to connect with somebody about their larger health needs," added Gaeta.

Del Seymour said it's the right approach. He was homeless and addicted to crack cocaine for 18 years before he got clean.

He founded Code Tenderloin, a workforce development organization that offers job training and computer programming classes to people who are homeless, living in shelters or marginally housed.

Seymour doesn't want drug use to be criminalized.

"It's a disease. You don't lock up someone for having cancer. You don't lock up someone for having leukemia. Why do you want to lock up someone that's having an addiction," he explained.

Seymour said he went through a lot of court-mandated drug programs but none of them worked for him. It took 18 years before he decided to make a change.

He said the majority of people using drugs on the street are dealing with some sort of personal trauma.

"The reason people use drugs is because it takes them out of the situation they're in. At least for those hours while they're intoxicated, they don't have to be who they are," explained Seymour.

He said the Tenderloin is overrun by drug users because that's where they can easily buy drugs.

"If you're a drug user, when you buy on the street you use on the street because your addiction makes you want to use it right now," said Seymour.

Shireen McSpadden, who runs the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing in San Francisco, said it is hard for people who have experienced trauma and have been homeless to trust the system and get help.

Tom Kincaid was among the first to move into the 80 unit Garland Hotel, which unlike other SRO hotels, has private bathrooms in each room.
Tom Kincaid was among the first to move into the 80 unit Garland Hotel, which unlike other SRO hotels, has private bathrooms in each room.

"It's very chaotic on the street and it's really hard for people to adhere to a program when they're on the street," said McSpadden.

Daniel McClenon has felt that in a violent way.

McClenon is a street artist who has the talent to do much more. He uses pencils and ballpoint pens to draw elaborate portraits on pieces of cardboard.

"The hardest part is keeping my artwork safe. If you're not sleeping on top of it, it's stolen for its quality or they'll steal it for another mat for them to sleep on," said McClenon, as he showed blood stains on his sleep and pants from an attack he suffered a few days earlier.

He posts regularly on Instagram (@danielmcclenon) to display his artwork, but he reveals what it's like to live on the street.

He has struggled with addiction and mental illness, possibly made worse by the death of his younger brother for which he still carries a lot of pain.

McClenon recently had an exhibit of his artwork at Hospitality House that he dedicated to his brother. A fan started a GoFundMe page for him.

Daniel McClenon, a homeless artist, creates one of his art pieces while sitting on Market Street in San Francisco.
Daniel McClenon, a homeless artist, creates one of his art pieces while sitting on Market Street in San Francisco.

McClenon said the trauma he carries has made it difficult for him to find stable housing and fulfill his dream of teaching again.

Back at the Garland Hotel, Tom Kincaid already has a new outlook on life since he moved there several weeks ago from the Baldwin Hotel.

"The Baldwin was just so old and run down. The Garland is nicer," said Kincaid, who was formerly homeless and addicted to heroin.

"It's a fresh start. I want to use it as a way to better myself further. I have no excuse," said Kincaid.

McSpadden admits SROs like the Baldwin Hotel are not ideal for permanent housing. That is why the building is being converted to a shelter that will give people more privacy than traditional shelters that housed people in a giant room.

"People say how much it means to them to have a door that can close and they can feel calm," explained McSpadden. "It helps them organize their thoughts and lets them think what they need to do to move on in life."

Join ABC7 in our commitment to reporting from San Francisco's Tenderloin District. In every block of this neighborhood, there's a story to tell. Some good. Some troubling. All worth sharing, in the hopes of building a better community.

This project challenges city leaders and the entire Bay Area to care more, to do more, and to help build a better Bay Area for our future. We address the problems within the district from the inside out.

Visit this page for a full list of all our reports on the Tenderloin.

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