Tenderloin, San Franciso, August 2023. The Need For Compassion

I had to go down further into the TL a few days ago. I try not to walk that direction, as it has got more and more dangerous, dirty and scary to do so as time has gone on. When we first moved in the Tenderloin and this part of it were not too bad. Of course there was suffering, drug use and clear signs of people dealing on the corners, and the streets were scruffy and more than a little dirty, but the Tenderloin was more edgy than a scene of utter human destruction.

Then covid eased up, meaning that the hotels for the homeless program ended, throwing people back out onto the streets. The City in its infinite wisdom closed down the Harm Reduction Center in the Tenderloin, thus leaving nowhere for the addicted to get help to survive their habits, and nowhere to get some respite from the streets. These two things, plus what appears to be an absolute wave of fentanyl-fueled death and destruction have led to the area suffering immensely.

I will not take photos of people suffering, so let me describe the scenes out there for you. Shoeless, barely clothed, filthy and with no access to showers or toilets , there are people dying like poisoned roaches on the streets of San Francisco in the Tenderloin. The suffering is now spreading out from the ‘Loin into other areas. Lower Nob Hill, Polk Street, the area around Van Ness are all struggling under the strain of the weight of human destitution and absolute pain. Piles of trash blow around this wasteland, rodents run along the streets, which are so piled full of trash and the detritus of addiction and homelessness, that some parts of the sidewalk are totally impassable, filled with destitute people doing the fentanyl lean, tents, trash, and the jetsam and flotsam of people suffering and living outside in absolutely desperate conditions.

The condition of a lot of these people is beyond description. They are literally dying on the streets, in absolute filth and squalor. Not only is it immensely unkind it is a public health risk. It breaks my heart to see so many people hurting so badly. It is not a scene that should be seen on a street in any place in the USA. I found myself wondering that perhaps the powers that be, have decided to let the situation resolve itself by allowing people to reach the logical conclusion of no shelter, no hygiene facilities, no reliable source of food, or harm reduction, and to cynically, cruelly and pragmatically let the ‘problem die out’. That is unconscionable to me, and I would hope to anyone who still has a heart and a moral compass that works.

A woman sat in the gutter her body ravaged with addiction, so thin it hurt to look at her. Her skin was bothering her, and she was tearing at her midrift with her nails. She looked in desperate need of assistance. Just down from her, two men sat nodded out on the sidewalk. No one looking out for them, no harm reduction there with the narcan just in case. The opiate problem has not been heroin for many years, and now it is not just only fentanyl. Now tranq is the new kid on the block, narcan does not work on it, and it absolutely destroys bodies, rotting them from the inside out. I cannot see how it is survivable. In the quest to alleviate suffering, by using drugs which ease the pain, instead the pain is increased and the chances of any meaningful recovery are slim at best. These drugs apparently have no euphoria, the quest merely for relief, nothingness, and to escape the inevitable dope sick, which is the only constant in this terrible matter. Where is the compassion? Where is the caring? Where is the help?

It is not possible to quench the supply. Many failed years of the war against drugs proves this. That need always fills up, and truly this now looks like an attack on the American people, using our pain and weakness against us. It is exacerbated by the lack of pragmatism and the apparent need of the powers that be to punish, instead of save and treat. This is a direct consequence of end stage capitalism. If The Man could force us to buy air he would do. Life, existence is a costly business, and these people are not allowed to recover to the point of finding what they can offer society at large. There is compassion, there is mercy, but not if you fall too far. Not if you end up addicted on the streets of the Tenderloin.

I do what I can. I’ll buy someone a can of pop and an energy bar, or give them a few bucks if I possibly can and the person really looks like they need it. If I had the money I would do more. A young man sat in a wheelchair somewhere down Geary. He was in a terrible state. He had been chased out of the shop I had just been in. Tears fell down his face. He had bought that fent ticket and taken the ride almost to the end of the tracks. I dropped a buck into his hand. Not enough, but perhaps enough to say that someone saw him and someone cared. That young man used to be someone’s baby, someone’s precious, someone’s beloved. I wonder what had happened to him. I wondered if he had driven everyone away, or if life had kicked him and not given him people who loved him in the first place. It didn’t matter. At that nadir in his life, not much mattered. The man needed a miracle I could not give him. I wish I had a solution, an answer.

I dream of the impossible – of being able to start up a harm reduction center in the Tenderloin which works on the principles of compassion, on the presumption of where there is life there is hope and that with enough support just about anyone can helped towards the life they would want to have. Unfortunately even with all the money and will in the world without a severe culture change, and some changes in the law this mythical place of compassion could never exist. It would require safe supply to be possible and legal. It would mean for people to not see addiction as moral issue, but instead as one of pain and the relief of it. It would require the war against drugs to stop, and instead a way to be found for foreign powers like China, to stop flooding our streets with these unsurvivable drugs, and this can only be done if the demand for them is taken away. If there is safe supply then people can live with their addiction until they are ready to give it up. Isn’t that better than letting American’s die? Isn’t that better than the warm glow of punishment and superiority for those that never fell down that rabbit hole? It would mean that things which work, like psychedelic therapy for addiction, would have to be widely and legally available.

I am sober, well, California sober…and never see myself falling again. I am in a lot of pain yet the only thing I use to control it is a little weed and a lot of self control. I credit psychedelics, time and the love of my Boy for my ultimate redemption. I don’t want to be numb. I want to feel it all, and when the time comes that this disease hurts me to the point that I cannot cope, I hope the doctors have a measure of mercy upon me. Right now pain patients are not given relief because of the opiate addiction issues and the absolute culture of punishment which is currently in vogue. This is outrageously unfair.

The Tenderloin is hurting everyone right now. Addiction of some is hurting even the pain patients, it is hurting the sober residents and the sober unhoused people. It is a crisis in San Francisco. There are answers, but The Man is not willing to ask the right questions nor give up his cruel tactics.

If only San Francisco listened to the Grateful Dead once again, and took a fresh look at how to fix this painful problem on our streets, and decided to ‘be kind’. Things need to be fixed on a federal level, and pragmatism needs to rule the day. The fact is if you are rich you probably get to survive your addictions; if you are poor, then you suffer out there, with not even access to a bathroom or a shower or to harm reduction services and that breaks my heart.

I love the Tenderloin. I have had the best years of my life living here with my son. There are good hearted people who care about each other here. There is a sense of community and of solidarity. I also cannot sleep through the night for screaming, the sounds of violence and the sound of people fighting outside. It is absolutely more unsafe than it was a couple of years ago, and a lot less comfortable. That makes me sad.

The edge that the area had is now cutting the residents to the bone – both housed and unhoused and this edge needs to be blunted by a whole truckload of compassion and pragmatism. I hope the City finds it soon. The situation here is heartbreaking. I read comments online that hate on San Francisco. We are the best City in the world, which has a few problems. Because we do have a measure of compassion, that is why people flock here. Even the weather is merciful! I came here looking for mercy and I found some. If I had been weak and gotten addicted I would have received none. I am grateful in the extreme that someone had mercy on us when we first came here. I will never forget the woman that allowed me and my child into the shelter with no ID. She had mercy on me and the Boy and I consider her an Angel in human form. Let’s spread some of that mercy around and make things better. Let’s all be that Angel that we need when we are truly desperate for help and love and human kindness.


Detroit Richards. August 2023

Leave a Reply