Life and Death Matters On The Streets of San Francisco

I walked out down into the Tenderloin today, looking for photos to go with a piece I had written for Invisible People on San Francisco, about harm reduction for drug users and San Francisco’s issues with homelessness. I generally do not walk further into the TL, and instead take a sharp left turn outside my apartment and head up into a safer part of town as quickly as I can. I try and avoid the drug dealers and the people shooting up on the sidewalk, mainly because I have to guard my own sobriety very carefully. I live in an area where drugs, any drug anyone could even think of doing, is out there for sale. I am clean, and have been for a while, but I am one bad day, one slip up, one moment of ‘fuck it all I don’t care’ from not being. I owe people my sobriety, at least for now. There is no bright future for me, but I am still of some use to those I love and I still have people I love enough to hold on for dear life to being the cleanest I have ever been. I am inside, I have a bathroom, a shower and a bed. I am doing my best to keep it that way, and to that end I stay away from the corner boys and gentlemen with smiles on their faces and poison in their pockets and down their socks and under their hats.

I didn’t want to take photos on my block because I don’t want anyone to pinpoint exactly where I live, so I simply put on my walking boots and headed south, down the main drag, my own mainline on my mind. It didn’t take long to see what the problem was and why my block had deteriorated badly: the main artery through the Tenderloin had been swept, there was not a tent and barely a rough sleeper or a drug dealer, so the trouble had drifted up to my block. The powers that be had not cleaned up anything, they had merely spread the problem around. The trash was still on the sidewalks, and pushed into the gutter, I skipped over used rigs, their sharp points bent and buckled but still there ready to spear an unsuspecting toe. Bags smeared with shit littered the sidewalks. I could not safely pull out my phone to take photographs, so headed down to see if I could get the photos I needed a little further in.

A tall man stopped me. I was walking on the dark side of the road, the shadows and trees and scaffolding blocking out the San Francisco sunlight. Lou Reed’s Waiting For My Man has nothing on me, man. The modern day San Francisco equivalent of Lou’s reported speech of ‘Hey white boy, what you doin’ up town?’ drifted in my direction from his surprisingly happy and gentle looking face. Hey, a man has to earn a crust in this City. The initial getting of my attention was quickly followed by an offer of Boy, smack, black tar (or what passes for it in these fentanyl days), chiva..Heroin. Black and sticky, not fluffy white fentanyl. Like a dog smelling steak my mouth started to water. I fancied I could smell the vinegar through my mask. The goods looked legit. I wondered if good ole black tar was actually heroin these days, or somehow that wicked white powder had made it’s way into the thick sticky cellophaned wrapped boiled down cola mess. I shook my head and kept on walking. Not yet. Not today. Not me.

A few steps later and an unusually happy woman with eyes on fire and a slight drag in her step was exclaiming loudly to a sad looking gentleman holding a white dog, that she had got the crack, she had got the rock in her pocket, she had got The Crack, The Shit, and he ain’t getting shit. She got the rock. He ain’t getting shit. He ain’t getting shit….and she got the crack. He looked crestfallen and as if he had accepted his fate. She looked triumphant. I wanted to hug her. I wanted to congratulate her. He ain’t getting shit. Nothing. Nada. Not a taste, not a scrap, not a smoke not a pebble. Nothing. That is right. I shouldn’t go down there. It wakes up the dragon that sleeps in my veins. I shouldn’t go down there, it makes me long for a taste. I shouldn’t go down there looking for images or words. This is my milieu, my people, about my level. This is where I belong, but where I should not be, yet there I was. I had taken myself to the fight, and it really was not the best idea I have ever had.

I hadn’t got more than ten steps further, just onto the next block when a man sitting on the sidewalk, his friend’s head in his lap, cradling him like a baby, half heartedly pumping his chest, crying and desperate, shouted out to me: “Have you got narcan!” I said no, and took a quick look and asked him if he had called 911. He said he had. I didn’t hear sirens yet. I asked him again. I had my phone in my hand. He was begging me to help, so I ran around desperately asking people if they had narcan. People looked scared of me and I don’t much enjoy that. I explained breathlessly, “Man. Overdose. There. Narcan?” Then I ran to the next. Meanwhile the man pumping his friend’s chest was begging me to help. No one else had stopped. So I ran up the street, hoping beyond hope there was a CVS or a Walgreens and I could get back in time, stop time, make time, and bring back narcan to the man who already looked dead.

I have seen overdoses in my time. I have seen people make it, and people who had already reached the damn Kingdom. The man looked dead. His lips were blue and his dark skin gone grey, his eyes was open and rolled back into his head. He was loose and floppy. He had a shock of curly black hair and a slender body of someone who had been on the streets and on the smack for too long already. He didn’t look more than 25. I heard sirens and saw a gaggle of people surround the overdosed man and his friend. I couldn’t stick around. I had done everything I could, and now there was help, even if the help was too late, and even if I had been beyond useless, I suppose I tried. I guess I showed that someone cared enough to run around and at least try and get help. It is going to be scant comfort to the man who was holding his friend in his arms. That raw grief and panic melted into the air. I know it well. It is an old foe. There is nothing to do about it except try and survive it. It still lingers in my bones and licks its way into the corners of my synapses, smothering all rational thought.

The Harm Reduction Center in the Tenderloin/SOMA is closed, and more services planned to close in December of this year. Narcan saves lives. Access to clean needles saves lives. If there was more access to narcan that was free and easy to get hold of, then perhaps one person at least would have had naloxone on them and at least that poor man could have had a chance at living and recovering his life. Criminalizing drugs does not help. Putting people in jail for possession does not help. People who could live, re-enter society and survive are dying. Denying and criminalizing the issues is not going to make it go away. The war on drugs is lost. We tried to fight human nature and need. Instead we need compassion, assistance and a little tenderness in the Tenderloin towards those who are suffering so immensely.

I walked home with tears running down my face, and the sirens and flashing lights of too little help a lot too late and the feeling that I could have done more, done better, done something useful. I am still crying my heart out. Homelessness and addiction does not have to be a death sentence. If people who make policies and have control over services actually stop pleasing those people who have money, power and safety already, and instead make choices not based on appeasing the rich, but saving the poor, then everyone’s quality of life will improve. Don’t ask the privileged what needs to happen, ask those in the middle of it all what is necessary. People need access to harm reduction services and free narcan. People need bathrooms and showers and shelter. Sweeps just move the problem and don’t fix it, and I call that a waste of resources. Services are meant to be ‘offered’ but in reality this is not what happens. What happens is what happened today: people who should be alive don’t get to live.

The sad and inhumane fact of the matter is that those that have, rarely want to help those that don’t have anything at all, and need help, survive. Honestly, how many residents of San Francisco make sympathetic sounds but really see the death of addicts as the problem solving itself? Society has lost its humanity. I am not here to soothe or tell people they did their best. I didn’t do my best. I should have had narcan on me, I should have gone to a harm reduction center and made sure I had some in my bag. Society is failing, politics is failing. We are failing both as a community and as individuals.

People want to know what they get out of helping. How does it benefit society? That young man, had he lived, had someone had narcan, could have gone on to recover his life and do good. He deserved a chance to try. I looked for free narcan in San Francisco. It is stupidly hard to locate. Anyone should be able to go to a drug store and pick it up for free. In the end what we need to ask ourselves is who are we? Are we good with letting people suffer, get sick and die? Are we happy with that situation, or do we want to act like human beings with empathy and a soul and pull others up to where we are? I am not giving up hope that there are more good people than bad out there, and to be frank, the bad are not the ones sleeping outside, they are the victims of a useless, pointless, uncaring society and politicians who are not willing to listen to those that know how to help and actually do something that will make things better.

To that end, I would say, if you have any heart at all, vote for Chesa Boudin this November. He does not criminalize addiction, he worked very hard indeed to stop victimizing those who are already victims of a society riddled with institutionalized racism, lack of care and a fetish for punishment instead of assistance. The Tenderloin felt safer when he was in charge, and my block has never been so bad since he has been gone. Rehabilitation and treatment works, punishment and criminalization does not.

For the love of all that is good, there are people out there who don’t have time for things to change for the better. Do something now.


Leave a Reply