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See the opioid crisis plaguing San Francisco

Homelessness and the opioid epidemic are plaguing San Francisco streets. CNN's Dan Simon reports on how the city is fighting back.

Posted: Dec 29, 2018 1:50 AM
Updated: Dec 29, 2018 1:50 AM

Outside the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in downtown San Francisco, a woman urinates on the sidewalk and smokes a crack pipe.

Inside her purse are about a dozen used heroin needles. She shoots heroin up to 10 times per day, she says.

About 50 yards away, a man injects another woman in the neck with a needle. She puts her thumb in her mouth and blows on it to make her vein more visible. Her right arm is caked with dried blood.

This San Francisco neighborhood is home to the headquarters of Uber, Twitter and Salesforce. But stroll around here, and you're also likely to find used drug paraphernalia, trash, and human excrement on the sidewalks, and people lying in various states of consciousness.

Public drug usage and homelessness are not new problems for the city of San Francisco. But residents say the situation has gotten worse in recent years. As of October, 7,500 complaints about discarded needles have been made this year, compared with 6,363 last year. In 2015, the number was less than 3,000.

It's moved some locals -- so-called "video vigilantes" -- to document the mess they see, in an attempt to get the city's attention.

Adam Mesnick, a restaurateur who lives and works in the South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood, started posting daily photos and videos of people using drugs in public, urinating near his restaurant, or lying passed out on the sidewalk.

"More mrsa and staph on the streets of San Francisco," Mesnick wrote in one post, accompanied by photos of angry sores on people's backs, hands and legs.

One photo shows a man planted face down on the sidewalk, his shorts pulled down exposing his rear. In another, human feces lies nestled in front of a doorway. In a video apparently taken from inside Mesnick's restaurant, a man can be seen urinating in a doorway across the street.

Mesnick isn't trying to shame homeless people with his Twitter posts, he says, but "to actually find help for these people." He's been giving leftover food from his restaurant to the homeless for the past ten years, he said.

Over the past five or six years, Mesnick says, visible homelessness and drug use on the streets have seemed to spread from areas of San Francisco where they were once concentrated, like the Tenderloin.

"It's like third world squalor," Mesnick said. "I'm a small business (owner) trying to exist, and basically surrounded by decay that continues to get worse and worse and worse."

Others fear that the situation will impact tourism. "If we can't find a solution to this problem," said Joe D'Alessandro, CEO of the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, "it will tarnish the city's brand."

Another longtime resident tweets about the state of the neighborhood using the handle @cleanupwestsoma. He asked to remain anonymous because his friends don't know he runs the account, and says he's lived in San Francisco for 21 years, 12 of them in SoMa.

"I post as I go to work. I'll sometimes come home from lunch and see a giant drug deal going on," he said. "I'll leave and go back to work and see someone going to the bathroom in the street. It blows me away that this continues to happen in the city."

Mesnick and @cleanupwestsoma want to send a message to city officials about what's happening in their neighborhoods. They often tweet at San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who took office in a special election in July after the death of Mayor Ed Lee.

"You know what? I already had the message, as a native San Franciscan, as someone who's been here all my life," Breed told CNN. "It isn't acceptable."

Breed, 44, made tackling homelessness and drug addiction a signature of her campaign platform. She says the city has been making changes since she took office, and that they're slowly starting to have an impact. "It's not an unsolvable problem," she said.

Last week, the mayor announced a detailed plan to direct a $181 million cash windfall the city received from the state to homelessness, affordable housing and related problems. The proposal includes nearly $20 million to be spent on beds for patients who have addiction and mental health problems. An additional $4 million would go toward expanding street cleaning.

And Breed says visible progress has already been made.

"If you walk with me right now, you will see the difference," she said. "You'll see more police officers. You'll see the homeless outreach team. You'll see people power-washing on a regular basis and picking up trash." Tent encampments are down by 27% since she took office, she said.

Kevin Schwing, who works in SoMa, said that despite the city's efforts, he doesn't see a change in the numbers of people on the streets.

"I don't really know what the city can do," he said. "The city cleans up sidewalks every day. But I don't see any difference in terms of the amount of people."

"I see human waste. Injections. Probably 10 times per day," he said. "Sometimes people look like they're dead."

Breed says the city is cracking down on drug dealing, and aims to open at least 1,000 new shelter beds by the end of 2020.

And she's looking at new ways to approach these entrenched problems, she says. Breed supports safe injection sites -- facilities where people can inject heroin in a private setting and under the supervision of health care workers. The sites would "not only be a way to get people off the streets and get the needles off the streets, but to get people into treatment," Breed said. California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed legislation earlier this year that would have allowed safe injection sites in the state.

She also supports conservatorship programs for the severely mentally ill, which would allow the state to "make decisions for them in order to place them into mental health stabilization beds, instead of our criminal justice system." Gov. Brown recently signed a bill that would allow such action to take place.

Breed says she hopes the "video vigilantes" tag 311, the city's non-emergency complaint service center, in their posts. The information they're putting out helps the city address challenges in specific neighborhoods, she said.

The city's Department of Public Health recently partnered with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, essentially hiring contract workers to fan the streets and collect used needles.

Crisis intervention teams have also stepped up their efforts to provide addicts with the drug buprenorphine, a narcotic to help reduce a person's addiction to heroin and other opioids.

"We go to people that are using drugs and offer them treatment instead of the traditional model which has people coming into a clinic," said Dr. Naveena Bobba, the department's deputy director of health.

The city has also launched the so-called "poop patrol," a team that responds to complaints of feces on city streets.

SoMa resident Alesia Panajota said she sees an impact. "They're doing the best they can," she said. "I think things are getting better under London Breed."

San Francisco may also see an influx of cash to help solve the crisis, after a controversial ballot measure passed in November. Known as "Prop C," the measure is viewed as a "homeless tax" -- it aims to raise $300 million a year to spend on homeless services by taxing big businesses.

Salesforce Chairman and Co-CEO Marc Benioff spent at least $7 million of his own money to help ensure Prop C's passage. "We have to say enough is enough," he recently told CNN.

But legal challenges could prevent the city from receiving the funds for several years.

In the meantime, Mesnick keeps posting. He recently put up a video interview with a homeless man talking about how difficult it is to find a place to go to the bathroom after dark.

"Help this guy," Mesnick wrote. "Keep the restrooms open at night? Perhaps we change usage of our space and make it a bathroom share? Better than on our front stoop..."

"We are in a severe epidemic here," he told CNN. "My angle may seem to be a little rough around the edges, but it's really about compassion."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 315026

Reported Deaths: 7257
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto21684260
Hinds20385416
Harrison17973309
Rankin13650278
Jackson13456246
Madison10130217
Lee9988174
Jones8388163
Forrest7701152
Lauderdale7198240
Lowndes6411148
Lamar624686
Lafayette6210119
Washington5342134
Bolivar4804132
Oktibbeha463298
Panola4601107
Pearl River4524146
Marshall4454103
Warren4397121
Pontotoc421172
Monroe4120133
Union411276
Neshoba4033176
Lincoln3972110
Hancock380287
Leflore3500125
Sunflower336490
Tate335484
Pike3330105
Scott316773
Alcorn313670
Yazoo311870
Itawamba300877
Copiah297865
Coahoma295979
Simpson295388
Tippah289068
Adams288682
Prentiss280360
Marion269680
Leake268673
Wayne262941
Grenada261987
Covington260381
George249448
Newton246963
Winston227881
Tishomingo227567
Jasper221148
Attala214473
Chickasaw208457
Holmes189174
Clay185654
Stone183033
Tallahatchie179041
Clarke178180
Calhoun170932
Yalobusha164838
Smith162734
Walthall134345
Greene130633
Lawrence129324
Montgomery127242
Noxubee126734
Perry126338
Amite123142
Carroll121929
Webster114532
Jefferson Davis107233
Tunica105726
Claiborne102530
Benton100125
Humphreys96733
Kemper95828
Franklin83923
Quitman81116
Choctaw76418
Wilkinson67631
Jefferson65728
Sharkey50217
Issaquena1686
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 540267

Reported Deaths: 11038
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson798791529
Mobile41295809
Madison35175506
Tuscaloosa25932455
Shelby25309249
Montgomery24736593
Baldwin21422310
Lee15997172
Calhoun14577319
Morgan14431280
Etowah13927353
Marshall12280225
Houston10650282
Elmore10158206
Limestone10075151
St. Clair9955245
Cullman9773194
Lauderdale9465243
DeKalb8866188
Talladega8344176
Walker7261278
Autauga7010108
Jackson6840112
Blount6776139
Colbert6322135
Coffee5583118
Dale4878113
Russell445938
Chilton4383113
Franklin426382
Covington4138118
Tallapoosa4044153
Escambia395177
Chambers3598123
Dallas3569153
Clarke351561
Marion3140101
Pike312077
Lawrence303698
Winston275873
Bibb264864
Geneva254178
Marengo249865
Pickens234862
Barbour232056
Hale224078
Butler219069
Fayette213162
Henry190043
Cherokee184845
Randolph182542
Monroe178241
Washington167839
Macon161350
Clay157257
Crenshaw153657
Cleburne149641
Lamar143336
Lowndes140753
Wilcox127430
Bullock123342
Conecuh110829
Coosa109228
Perry107826
Sumter105032
Greene92634
Choctaw61024
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Your Tuesday comes with more clouds and rain chances, though a few areas of sunshine and warmth are possible at times in the afternoon. Though all areas could see some rain today, the majority of this rainfall will be found in our western counties.
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