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: 500709

Reported Deaths: 9977
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34312538
DeSoto32080403
Hinds31924627
Jackson24482379
Rankin21983390
Lee15530235
Madison14574280
Jones13838242
Forrest13447251
Lauderdale11985316
Lowndes11030188
Lamar10508135
Pearl River9503237
Lafayette8547139
Hancock7728126
Washington7422157
Oktibbeha7142131
Monroe6769176
Warren6682176
Pontotoc6659102
Neshoba6635206
Panola6520131
Marshall6462134
Bolivar6313148
Union602494
Pike5817152
Alcorn5667101
Lincoln5433135
George496779
Scott472698
Tippah469081
Prentiss466881
Leflore4657144
Itawamba4633105
Adams4586119
Tate4584110
Copiah448592
Simpson4445116
Yazoo443987
Wayne439772
Covington428794
Sunflower4237105
Marion4225108
Coahoma4159104
Leake408288
Newton381679
Grenada3706108
Stone359764
Tishomingo359692
Attala331489
Jasper329965
Winston314291
Clay307976
Chickasaw299667
Clarke292494
Calhoun279346
Holmes267887
Smith263850
Yalobusha233747
Tallahatchie227151
Greene219048
Walthall218763
Lawrence212440
Perry205356
Amite205155
Webster202746
Noxubee186640
Montgomery179656
Jefferson Davis171542
Carroll168838
Tunica159439
Benton148738
Kemper141941
Choctaw133426
Claiborne132437
Humphreys129238
Franklin120028
Quitman106428
Wilkinson105139
Jefferson94534
Sharkey64020
Issaquena1937
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 817054

Reported Deaths: 15320
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1145501922
Mobile724601333
Madison52172694
Shelby37533348
Baldwin37192547
Tuscaloosa35044606
Montgomery34067734
Lee23195245
Calhoun22205476
Morgan20754376
Etowah19811497
Marshall18317302
Houston17345411
St. Clair15983339
Cullman15383292
Limestone15298198
Elmore15161284
Lauderdale14225294
Talladega13802276
DeKalb12622260
Walker11162369
Blount10162175
Autauga9954146
Jackson9844182
Coffee9195191
Dale8880185
Colbert8826201
Tallapoosa7071198
Escambia6764130
Covington6699183
Chilton6627161
Russell627959
Franklin5955105
Chambers5567142
Marion4982126
Dallas4936200
Clarke474583
Pike4722105
Geneva4566126
Winston4502103
Lawrence4296117
Bibb424086
Barbour356676
Marengo337789
Monroe331463
Randolph328763
Butler325696
Pickens315682
Henry311965
Hale311088
Cherokee301760
Fayette291879
Washington251351
Cleburne247360
Crenshaw244375
Clay241768
Macon232363
Lamar222047
Conecuh185853
Coosa179739
Lowndes174564
Wilcox167939
Bullock151644
Perry138340
Sumter132738
Greene126644
Choctaw88127
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