About 15 minutes into San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s unannounced walking tour of the Tenderloin on Friday afternoon, the first needle appeared. Luckily, Barbara Garcia, the city’s director of Public Health, had some wooden tongs and a portable disposal kit at the ready.
The feces materialized a few minutes later, just before Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru found a trash can for the discarded vodka bottle he picked up a few blocks earlier.
On just her second full day in office, Breed led a gaggle of department heads through the city’s grittiest neighborhood. Her point? To send a message that she’s going to clean the streets and care for those living on them.
“What I see here in the Tenderloin, I see on a regular basis, and that, unfortunately, is feces on the ground, the needles on the ground, some people sleeping on the ground and the challenges that exist here,” Breed said, speaking outside the Tenderloin Police Station on Eddy Street, where the officials ended their walk from City Hall, just over a half-mile away.
“We’re working every day to get to a better place, but part of the walk-through had everything to do with making sure that everyone knows that this will be my priority — this is something I want to change,” she said. “I want to make sure we’re power-washing the streets. I want to make sure that individuals who we know need help are getting the help and support they need.”
The brass accompanying Breed represented the departments that comprise the city’s Healthy Streets Operations Center, which since the beginning of the year, has served as a hub for nonemergency homelessness complaints and calls for service.
“We need multi-department approaches to the issues we’ve been facing” Garcia said.
Along with Nuru and Garcia was Homelessness and Supportive Housing Director Jeff Kositsky, Sheriff Vicki Hennessy and representatives from the city’s 311 customer service portal, the Homeless Outreach Team and several San Francisco police officers.
The walking tour came as something of a surprise to the department heads, who Breed asked to attend just hours earlier. City streets tend to be meticulously cleaned ahead of an announced visit from the mayor, but Breed wanted the neighborhood tour to be unscripted.
“This was not a planned event,” Kositsky said. “This was not a show for her. She wanted to see it how it is. I think she wants to send a message that she cares about these issues. I think she also wants to make it clear that she cares about this neighborhood.”
Tenderloin resident Tony Holly said of seeing Breed in person, “means a lot. To me, it means a lot. We need help out here.”
Breed has vowed to move quickly to tackle the interrelated problems of homelessness and street cleanliness and to help those suffering from mental health disorders and drug addiction. During the campaign, she pledged to eliminate tent camps during her first year in office.
She peppered department heads with questions as she walked, probing for ways to improve conditions in the Tenderloin and across the city.
“Part of the question I have, for the people you can’t help, what’s the problem?” she asked Nuru.
“We have to work harder than we’ve ever worked before to get the city back to a better place,” she said. “It doesn’t just include the city family. We all have to take responsibility to make sure that our streets are clean, for making sure we’re looking out for one another and making San Francisco a safer place.
“We all have a role to play whether we work for the city or not. And that is my message for all San Franciscans.”