Keeping the Streets of San Francisco Dealer-Free by Day


In San Francisco, three weeks after Mayor London Breed declared a state of emergency to combat the “nasty streets” downtown, Artie Gilbert walked up Market Street into the Tenderloin. It was daybreak, and the open-air drug markets have been dispersing. Gilbert, a former member of the Crips who spent twenty-six years in jail, mentioned, “This is like walking into paradise.” A person in a bus shelter was hunched over, smoking fentanyl with a plastic straw. “About a year and a half ago, you couldn’t even walk through here: tents and drug dealers down every block, 24/7,” Gilbert mentioned. He gestured up the road. “Now the dealers pile up in a different area—they migrate further that way.”

Gilbert walks this route repeatedly as an worker of a civic group known as Urban Alchemy, whose mission is “transforming the energy in traumatized urban spaces.” Its road ambassadors, most of them previously incarcerated folks, are paid a beginning charge of about twenty-one {dollars} an hour to maintain sure blocks clear throughout the day.

He was joined by a supervisor named Tiffany McClendon, who had on a leopard-print head wrap. “I was a full-time hustler in the Tenderloin for years,” she mentioned. “I know all these people. I was selling pills, crack, heroin, crystal meth with them. I’m one day away from where they are. This week, a guy tried to hit me with a fire extinguisher.” She went on, “I did so much harm to this community. Now I’m like the mama here.” Last yr, fentanyl killed extra folks in San Francisco than COVID did.

“I was a getaway driver in S.F. in my teens,” McClendon mentioned. “When they don’t want to move, people on the street call us hired criminals. But most people here are cool with it. Often it just pushes them to the next block—you can’t get high in the overnight shelters, so a lot of people are back here all night.” She handed a gaggle promoting medication on the stairs to a BART station. “Police barely fuck with us, because we do all their work,” she mentioned.

Gilbert arrived at an encampment on Turk Street—one of a number of “Safe Sleep Villages” that Urban Alchemy runs—the place he met Ian Clark-Johnson, one other employee. They entered the village, the place twelve folks have been residing in tents by a parking storage. “We do wellness checks to make sure—well, are you alive, basically,” Clark-Johnson mentioned. Back on the road, he talked to stragglers who hadn’t but moved from the pavement after a 7 A.M. sweep.

“Just put it away,” Clark-Johnson mentioned to a person bent over a chunk of foil. The man put the foil in his backpack till Clark-Johnson walked away, then took it out once more.

“San Francisco is segregated. This is a containment zone,” Clark-Johnson mentioned. He stopped at a constructing whose entrance, at evening, is crowded with folks taking pictures fentanyl. “Now, during the day, residents can leave their building, exit and enter,” he defined. A person named Cornbread got here up and requested for cash. “I only got two dollars,” Clark-Johnson informed him. “You want some food?” They went right into a espresso store, and Cornbread obtained a scorching chocolate, as a result of there was no cappuccino.

Next, Gilbert stopped by the principal village, a fenced enclosure of seventy-nine tents, throughout from City Hall. The rows of tents encompass bronze statues of the California grizzly and the Roman goddess of struggle, Minerva. Elisa Dunivent, who has lived in the village for greater than a yr, mentioned, “I call it my home. Outside these gates it’s a lot worse. I live here with my boyfriend and his pet rooster. I spend all day here cooking and cleaning. I went to culinary school.” She got here to San Francisco after getting sick from mildew in her home in Modesto.

Outside the village, folks camp on the sidewalk. “Good morning!” Gilbert mentioned. He handed a person below a pink blanket. “We wouldn’t bother this guest till a little later, after the sun comes up,” he mentioned. “We might come back and say, ‘Need a coffee, need a bagel?’ We don’t really like calling the police on the guests.”

Some San Franciscans wish to recall the progressive district lawyer, Chesa Boudin, for, they argue, selectively imposing solely legal guidelines he deems righteous. “I understand why people are frustrated,” Gilbert mentioned. “Right over here, a lady jumped out of her wheelchair and started beating a little kid.” He continued, “The police come down this street, maybe they blow the horn, but they don’t want to stop and do the paperwork to arrest them.”

He headed again to headquarters. “After my shift, I’ll go kick back, smoke a blunt, decompress, look at a lake, hear my heart beating, hear my thoughts thinking,” he mentioned. ♦



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