San Francisco's vaunted tolerance dims amid brazen crimes
Just steps from the Opera House, drug dealers carry translucent bags filled with crystal-like rocks, flashing wads of cash while peddling heroin and meth
By Olga R. Rodriguez and Janie Har
SAN FRANCISCO — Caitlin Foster fell in love with San Francisco's people and beauty and moved to the city a dozen years ago. But after repeatedly clearing away used needles, other drug paraphernalia and human feces outside the bar she manages, and too many encounters with armed people in crisis, her affection for the city has soured.
“It was a goal to live here, but now I’m here and I’m like, ‘Where am I going to move to now?’ I’m over it,'” said Foster, who manages Noir Lounge in the trendy Hayes Valley neighborhood.
A series of headline-grabbing crime stories — mobs of people smashing windows and grabbing luxury purses in the downtown Union Square shopping district and daytime shootings in the touristy Haight-Ashbury — has only exacerbated a general feeling of vulnerability. Residents wake up to news of attacks on Asian American seniors, burglarized restaurants, and boarded-up storefronts in the city's once-vibrant downtown.
San Franciscans take pride in their liberal political bent and generously approve tax measures for schools and the homeless. They accept that trashy streets, tent encampments and petty crime are the price to pay to live in an urban wonderland.
But the frustration felt by Foster, who moved from Seattle in search of more sunshine, is growing among residents who now see a city in decline. There are signs that the city famous for its tolerance is losing patience.
The pandemic emptied parts of San Francisco and highlighted some of its drawbacks: human and dog feces smeared across sidewalks, home and vehicle break-ins, overflowing trash cans, and a laissez-faire approach by officials to brazen drug dealing. Parents despaired as public schools stayed closed for most of last year as nearby districts welcomed children back to the classroom.
Meanwhile, residents and visitors scurry past scenes of lawlessness and squalor. Just steps from the Opera House and Symphony Hall, drug dealers carry translucent bags filled with crystal-like rocks or stand outside the public library's main branch, flashing wads of cash while peddling heroin and methamphetamine.
“There’s a widespread sense that things are on the wrong track in San Francisco,” said Patrick Wolff, 53, a retired professional chess player from the Boston area who has lived in the city since 2005.
In a sign of civic frustration, San Franciscans will vote in June on whether to recall District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a former public defender elected in 2019 whose critics say he's too lenient on crime. His supporters say there's no crime surge, and that corporate wage theft is a more pressing issue than cases like that of a San Francisco woman finally arrested after stealing more than $40,000 in goods from a Target over 120 visits. She was released by a judge and arrested again on suspicion of shoplifting after she failed to show up to get her court-ordered ankle monitor.
“Where’s the progress? If you say you’re progressive, let’s get the homeless off the street, and let’s get them mental health care,” said Brian Cassanego, a San Francisco native who owns the lounge where Foster works. He moved to wine country five months ago, tired of seeing dealers sell drugs with impunity and worrying about his wife being alone outside at night.
The day before he moved, Cassanego stepped out to walk his dogs and saw a man who "looked like a zombie," with his pants down to his knees and bleeding from where a syringe was stuck on his hip. A woman cried out nearby in shock.
“I went upstairs, and I told my wife, ‘We’re leaving now! This city is done!’” he said.
Reports of larceny theft — shoplifting from a person or business — are up nearly 17% to more than 28,000 from the same time last year. Requests to clean dirty streets and sidewalks are the majority of calls to 311, the city’s services line.
Overall, though, crime has been trending down for years. More than 45,000 incidents have been reported so far this year, up from last year when most people were shut indoors, but below the roughly 60,000 complaints in previous years.
San Francisco's well-publicized problems have served as fodder for conservative media outlets. Former President Donald Trump jumped in again recently, releasing a statement saying the National Guard should be sent to San Francisco to deter smash-and-grab robberies.
Elected officials say they're grappling with deep societal pains common to any large U.S. city.
A high percentage of an estimated 8,000 homeless people in San Francisco are struggling with chronic addiction or severe mental illness, usually both. Some people rant in the streets, nude and in need of medical help. Last year, 712 people died of drug overdoses, compared with 257 people who died of COVID-19.
LeAnn Corpus, an administrative assistant who enjoys figure skating, avoids the downtown rinks and won't take her 8-year-old son there after dark because of all the open drug use. Still, the city's urban ills have crept into her Portola neighborhood far from downtown.
A homeless man set up a makeshift tent outside her home using a bike and a bed sheet, and relieved himself on the sidewalk. She called the police, who came after two hours and cleared him out, but at her aunt's home, a homeless person camped out against the backyard for six months despite attempts to get authorities to remove him.
“This city just doesn’t feel the same anymore,” said Corpus, a third-generation native.
San Francisco residents who are generally uncomfortable with government surveillance have installed security cameras and deadbolts to prevent break-ins, and they have started eyeing outsiders with suspicion.
The other night, Joya Pramanik's husband spotted someone wearing a ski mask on what was an otherwise warm evening on their quiet street. She worried the masked man was up to no good — and it pains her to say that, since what she loves about San Francisco is its easy embrace of all types of characters.
Pramanik, a project manager who moved to the U.S. from India in her teens, cheered Trump's failed reelection bid but says she realized too late that Democratic activists have hijacked her city.
“If I say I want laws enforced, I’m racist," she said. “I’m like, ‘No, I’m not racist. There’s a reason I live in San Francisco.'”
Last year, Wolff, the retired chess player, helped launch a new political organization that aims to elect local officials focused on solving pressing problems. Families for San Francisco will elect Democrats, but it's organized outside the city's powerful Democratic Party establishment, he said.
Wolff hopes to change a civic mindset that no longer expects much in the way of basic public services.
In hip Hayes Valley, for example, business owners tired of seeing garbage strewn about and the city not doing anything to address the issue banded together to lease enclosed trash cans from a private company, said Jennifer Laska, president of the neighborhood association. After the lease expired, the association managed to get the city to agree to buy and install new public garbage cans designed to keep trash in and pilferers out.
That was four months ago.
“We’re still struggling just to get the trash cans actually purchased,” Laska said.
In the Marina, a wealthy neighborhood with stunning views of the bay and Golden Gate Bridge, dozens of residents recently hired private security after an increase in auto burglaries.
Lloyd Silverstein, a San Francisco native and president of the Hayes Valley Merchants Association, said businesses are considering hiring security guards and installing high-definition security cameras. He rejects the idea that any one city official is to blame for the situation, and he's optimistic the city will recover.
“We have been through big earthquakes and depressions and lots of stuff, but we have a pretty good bounce-back attitude. We’ve got some problems, but we’ll fix them," he said. “It may just take some time.”