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San Francisco used to be seen as a place for artists and innovators to achieve the California dream. Although the pastel-colored homes still sit on the city’s hills and the fog continues to roll in each day, the city is in deep turmoil.
Jordan Hollan and her husband had high hopes when they moved to the city in 2019 after graduating from Brigham Young University in Provo, but their perspective on the Bay Area changed quickly.
Their move was quickly followed by the pandemic, which tested the densely populated city and exacerbated homelessness as well as the fentanyl crisis.
“It’s a crazy reality,” Hollan said.
She shared a viral news story from December 2022 that is the worst nightmare for every parent: A 10-month-old child accidentally ingested fentanyl at a park in the Marina District, a once-safe and touristy spot in the city. The child was with his nanny, who noticed the child turning blue and began performing CPR before the first responders administered Narcan, the over-the-counter treatment for an opioid overdose.
“How does this happen in a playground?” Hollan said. “We don’t live in the Tenderloin,” the area infamous for drugs, homelessness and crime.
Usually, she said, they feel removed from the fentanyl crisis when going to preschool, the library and the parks but this time, it was “a little bit too close to home.”
As a mom of a preschooler, the news scared her, while mothers around her, and online, discussed whether they should carry Narcan in their diaper bags or purses.
San Francisco has, in recent years, put the ideals of progressive policies over commonsense solutions and community safety, some residents say. But city residents are trying to find solutions by electing more moderate leaders and pushing back against extreme policies. Still, structural issues may stand in their way.
Moderates replace progressives in San Francisco
More than 2,400 people in San Francisco have lost their lives to overdoses in the last three years.
In April, Gov. Gavin Newsom responded to the crisis in San Francisco by deploying the California National Guard and the California Highway Patrol to the city to help combat the fentanyl crisis. In August, he doubled the number of state police officers within the city.
But the problem of deadly drugs mixed with rising homelessness and crime is a concoction that state police officers don’t have the cure for.
Hollan said many people, especially those with children younger than the age of 7, have left the city. Part of that had to do with extended school closures, but that wasn’t the only reason.
“Families just don’t want to stay here. They’ll have one kid and once they have that second, they try and leave,” she told me over the phone.
The city feels dystopian now, said Mary Theroux, the chair and CEO of the Independent Institute, an American libertarian think tank based in Oakland — quite the opposite of the California dream.
“It’s almost accepted that we have thousands of people living in the streets in conditions that we would have deplored in the Third World 20 years ago,” she said. “You expect that if you’re going to park your car, it’s going to get broken into. If you’re a retailer, you’re going to get shoplifted every day.”
Theroux, who is a member of the San Francisco Salvation Army advisory board, said that San Francisco is no longer the kind of community people want to live in, “so we need solutions.”
She isn’t the only one. San Francisco residents have responded to the crisis by looking for lawmakers to implement moderate policies over progressive ones — a trend that has infiltrated many deeply blue cities like New York and Chicago.
Steven Buss, a former software engineer and the co-founder of GrowSF, a centrist advocacy group, said that he sees the change. “Last year ... we recalled a far-left district attorney and they were replaced by a moderate. In November, we replaced a far-left supervisor with a moderate supervisor.”
Buss is talking about District Attorney Chesa Boudin being replaced by Brooke Jenkins, a former assistant district attorney who worked for progressive Boudin but later turned on him, and Gordon Mar being unseated by anti-crime advocate Joel Engardio on the board of supervisors.
Buss is a lifelong Democrat but he said what San Franciscans are engaging in aren’t partisan issues but “basic civil society issues.”
San Francisco is not a strong mayor city anymore
More than 70% of residents say they want more policing, he said. And residents like Hollan are a part of that majority.
She said she wishes San Fransisco would elect a mayor like Rudy Giuliani, whose strict policies helped clean New York up, but she knows the city would never do that because that would go against the founding principles of acceptance. San Francisco hasn’t had a Republican mayor since the ‘60s.
“I think that we have gone so far on the edge of trying to make sure that we really want to make it a place for everyone that now it’s only a place for the homeless or the drug dealers because other people don’t want to live here,” she said.
San Francisco used to be a strong mayor city under Willie Brown during the late ’90s and early 2000s, Buss explained.
“But it’s been under two decades of assault by the board of supervisors who have been whittling away the power of the executive,” said Buss. “Even right now, the mayor cannot hire a new police chief — she literally no longer has the power to do that.”
“The mayor should be in charge of the police. But instead, we have an unelected commission of activists who don’t believe in policing, they’re in charge of the police department,” said Buss, adding that this system is at the heart of many issues.
The San Francisco Police Commission, referred to by Buss, passed a policy prohibiting officers from pulling over drivers for minor traffic violations and limiting them from asking the driver questions.
Commissions govern everything from policing to homelessness. There are four commissions looking over the unhoused— Our City, Our Home Oversight Commission, Local Homelessness Coordinating Board, Shelter Grievance Advisory Committee, and, the newest one, the Homelessness Oversight Commission, which Breed opposed
Breed previously said she “doesn’t believe (a new commission) would improve efficiency or ensure accountability, but would create more bureaucracy.”
The problem of homelessness taints Newsom’s image
Breed’s administration made an effort to clean up encampments in the city in hopes of making the city safer. However, the cleanup efforts were met with a federal lawsuit from the Coalition of Homelessness in September 2021.
Breed and city Attorney David Chiu entered a legal battle against homeless activists, who argued that the city was sweeping encampments without providing permanent housing.
But the data released by the city’s Department of Emergency Management tells a different story — 54% of people experiencing homelessness, or 1,278 individuals, declined offers for shelter.
“We’ve also found that 153 had some form of shelter or housing, but were still living in encampments,” said Francis Zamora from the Emergency Management Department.
On Aug. 23, Breed joined roughly 200 San Franciscans gathered outside the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in hopes of urging the court to lift the temporary ban on clearing encampments.
“The homeless coalition has held San Francisco hostage for decades. It is time for their reign to end,” Breed declared.
Some people chanted “Save our streets.” Others rallied to “Stop the sweeps,” including Dean Preston, a progressive member of the board of supervisors, and Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness and on one of the commissions for homelessness, who protested in favor of harm reduction and open air drug use.
“For decades, local municipalities have used police to manage the mounting humanitarian crisis that is mass homelessness in an America of rapidly expanding inequality and housing instability. This hasn’t worked,” said Friedenbach in an opinion piece for a local newspaper. “We believe it is time for San Francisco to shift gears and stop holding onto failed strategies.”
Newsom, who was the major of the city more than a decade ago, also chimed in, pointing to the Golden State’s record investment of $15.3 billion on homelessness.
“But federal courts block local efforts to clear street encampments — even when housing and services are offered,” he said. “Courts must also be held accountable. Enough is enough.”
But the court rejected San Francisco’s request to modify the ban on sweeping the streets on Sept. 6.
On homelessness, @ElonMusk has touched on a key issue.
California has made record investments — $15.3 bil.
But federal courts block local efforts to clear street encampments — even when housing and services are offered.
Courts must also be held accountable. Enough is enough.
— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) August 29, 2023
Newsom is aware of the responsibility he has towards San Fransisco, which, in some ways, represents California as a whole. And this could affect his aspirations of reaching the White House one day.
“I am mindful of the critics — and I’m one of them — that we can be doing more and better in myriad areas,” he told Politico in August.
Lawlessness breeds more lawlessness
San Fransisco’s dual nature is visible to anyone. “You can be somewhere at the top of the hill and see a beautiful city below, with the rolling fog, green grass and happy people,” said Buss from GrowSF.
“You can go two blocks away and every car on that block has had their windows smashed, while there’s trash on the street,” he said. “It’s a city of extremes.”
On top of more than 130 commissions that strip away power from the mayor and the board of supervisors, certain progressive state laws appear to be breeding “lawlessness,” according to Theroux from the Independent Institute.
For example, Proposition 47 has reduced nonviolent property crimes, which don’t exceed $950 in value, to a misdemeanor.
“When you make stealing legal, you’re going to get stealing,” said Theroux. “You breed a culture of lawlessness, and it just feeds on itself and it becomes more and more lawless.”
So far this year, there have been more than 13,000 reported car break-ins, comparable to the same period in 2022, according to the San Francisco Police Department, which plans to crack down on these smash and grabs.
Big shopping companies like Nordstrom, Office Depot and Anthropologie have shuttered their stores in the city. Meanwhile, residents don’t feel welcome to stay anymore either with the median price for a home lingering close to $1.3 million.
Hollan, the resident, said it’s hard not to feel that the city isn’t pushing out families.
“That really is what it feels like, especially for stay-at-home moms in a one-income household.”
Also, the pressing thought that “I’m actually not able to give my kids some really important life experiences here because safety is such an issue,” she said.
With that said, San Francisco’s future is largely unwritten. As residents push back at the ballot box, the city could evolve again.