San Francisco Turned into a Filthy Slum; Who Did It?

NARRATION: San Francisco is becoming a filthy slum because of its drug addicted homeless population.

MS. ZHOU: This is District 6. Let me tell you what is wrong with District 6. District 6 has 16 cannabis stores, 16.

HOMELESS RESIDENT: So technically, that is close to $800 a month. Free! To people in San Francisco. But still, they have no housing. So what do people do with their money?

I don’t know.

You figure it out.

MS. ZHOU: The current public employees who are sitting at City Hall, and many of the board of supervisors, they are associated with the cannabis operators. They are not trustworthy right now.

RESIDENT: The people here want the exact opposite of what the mayor and stuff is doing.

Title: San Francisco Turned into a Filthy Slum; Who Did It?

MS. GAO: Welcome to Zooming In, I am Simone Gao. Have you visited San Francisco in the past 5 years? If you have, you must have noticed how this city has changed. It is no longer the sophisticated coastal town immersed in history and culture. In fact, today, even when you walk around the War Memorial Opera House and the grand City Hall, you have to watch where you are going because you might step on something unpleasant. San Francisco has changed dramatically in the last few years. The homeless population has gone up, the crime rate has gone up, and the streets are getting dirtier and dirtier. Who brought these changes to San Francisco and is there a way to stop it? Let’s explore these questions in this episode of Zooming In.

Part 1: SF Has Become a City of Garbage, Human Waste and Needles

NARRATION: San Francisco was founded in 1776 and named after Saint Francis. It is the cultural, commercial and financial center of Northern California. It is also the center of liberal activism in the United States, famous for its leadership in the 1960s counterculture movement, sexual revolution, and peace movement against the Vietnam War. Now this 242-year-old historic city might have earned itself a new fame: The world’s filthiest slum.

NARRATION: An NBC investigative report surveyed 153 blocks of the city, including popular tourist spots like Union Square and major hotel chains, City Hall, schools, playgrounds, and a police station. They found the city overrun with large heaps of garbage, food, and discarded junk. The investigation also found 100 drug needles and more than 300 piles of feces throughout downtown. These are left mostly by the city’s close to 7000 homeless population.

MS. ZHOU: My name is Ellen Lee Zhou, and I am a public health worker. Every month our city spends so much money on the homeless. But look at the homeless we have here. This is Golden Gate Avenue, corner of Hyde. Okay? If you look here, we have the homeless. We spend the money, but we are not helping the homeless the way they are supposed to help.

NARRATION: Ellen Lee Zhou is one of the eight candidates running for San Francisco mayor in 2018. Ms. Zhou is a social worker, public health worker, and an independent. She took us on a tour through the most dangerous parts of San Francisco where she works routinely with the homeless population. According to research, 60 percent of the homeless population in California are either drug addicts or suffer from mental illness. The rate we discovered around Tenderloin, downtown San Francisco, was even higher: every single one of the homeless people we interviewed had problems with drugs. Some of them have been on the street for a long time.

MS. ZHOU: Wait a minute, if you are 30 years old, and 18 years ago, so you were 12 years old. Wait a minute, where are your parents?

HOMELESS RESIDENT: My dad, I don’t know. My mom, she is in Texas now.

MS. ZHOU: Do they know you are homeless in San Francisco?


MS. ZHOU: Would you like to go home?

HOMELESS RESIDENT: No, this is home.

MS. ZHOU: You like to be here?

HOMELESS RESIDENT: I have been here since… I grew up in California. I first traveled in 2001 and this has been home base since then.

NARRATION: Clover has been in juvenile hall, foster care and shipped back and forth across the country since she was 12. Now she and her high school sweetheart have both ended up on the street. Not many people would call living on the street home, but compared to other places, San Francisco does provide the most generous financial support to the homeless population. However, Ellen Zhou believes this is exactly what the problem is.

MS. ZHOU: The current administration use so much money that is useless right now. An average minimum 6,000 homeless a month, and the homeless population grow and grow. It gives me a message and tells people the more welfare that we spend on homeless the more homeless we will come.

NARRATION: About 30 percent of the homeless population in California came from other states. Besides welfare programs, a referendum called Proposition 47 passed in 2014 in California, which also contributed to the growth of the homeless population. Proposition 47 was a measure that recategorized some nonviolent offenses such as drug and property offenses as misdemeanors, rather than felonies. Before, drug offenders were typically faced with a choice: Go to state prison for committing a felony or participating in a year-and-a-half mandatory drug treatment. Many chose to enter treatment. According to a Washington Post report, 60 percent of those who enrolled graduated. 70 percent of graduates stayed out of trouble for at least three years. But now more addicts would rather spend a few days in jail on a misdemeanor than go through 18 months of rehab.

NARRATION: As a result, these untreated drug addicts end up on the street.

NARRATION: The American Civil Liberties Union donated $3.5 million to support this measure.

NARRATION: According to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report, as of 2017, California had about 134,000 homeless people, up nearly 14 percent from the previous year. California accounted for almost half of the country’s unsheltered population in 2017. San Francisco’s total homeless population is not as big as some other major cities such as New York and Los Angeles considering it is only 46 mi², but it has the highest proportion of unsheltered homeless, counting 511 people on the streets for every 100,000 residents.

NARRATION: Coming up, why isn’t the city’s policy to tackle the homeless and drug problem successful?

Part 2:

MS. GAO: The homeless problem has emerged as a major issue in this year’s election. In 2018, California is going to elect a new governor, a new mayor for San Francisco and many other state and federal officials. Although the candidates do not agree on solutions, more and more of them tend to agree that the current policy has problems. And they are not alone.

HOMELESS RESIDENT: You get more money, the government gives more money in San Francisco than any other city. They give us, for people who don’t work, they give $488 a month.

MS. ZHOU: 588?

HOMELESS RESIDENT: Yeah, a couple dollars from 500. No, listen to this. Then they give you $200 food stamps per month. So technically, that is close to $800 a month. Free! To people in San Francisco. But still, they have no housing. So what do people do with their money?

MS. ZHOU: I don’t know.

HOMELESS RESIDENT: You figure it out.

Narration: What do people do with that money when they are drug addicts and have to sleep on the street? This group of friends are all on drugs. And in terms of getting drugs, San Francisco is a paradise.

MS. ZHOU: This is District 6. Let me tell you what is wrong with District 6. District 6 has 16 cannabis stores, 16. The most busy police station of all in San Francisco. Drug dealings, cannabis, homeless. A lot of police activities, that includes prostitution. That is what’s wrong with District 6. When you come in here, you smell. You smell cannabis, you smell urine, you smell feces and you smell a lot of things that are not supposed to be here. But that’s Tenderloin. This is the heart of Tenderloin.

MS. ZHOU: I was in many of the public hearings. I remember very clearly in my head. We said to them, we do not want a cannabis store next to 3015 San Bruno because there is a preschool and a daycare right next to that proposed location. You know what they say? They said it is necessary to have a cannabis store there. That kills people’s voice because 85 percent of the people live nearby, within the 600 block, say no thank you. Stay away from our kids. Stay away from our residential area. But they still passed the regulation. They allow them to have the cannabis store next to the daycare. You know how I feel as a government employee? I just feel sick. I went home that night and I couldn’t sleep. That is how sad our government practices are right now. As a government employee, I stood up and said: enough is enough.

NARRATION: Allowing a wide cannabis presence is not just progressive thinking. Ellen Zhou reveals that there are close connections between cannabis operations and political contributions.

MS. ZHOU: I am the only mayor candidate that stood up for all of the San Franciscans. I am the only candidate able to stand up to tell you, all of the San Franciscans, the current public employees who are sitting at city hall, and many of the board of supervisors, they are associated with the cannabis operators. They are not trustworthy right now. That is my experience. Here is why. I went to one of the cannabis community outreach events. In the second, we were told they train people how to avoid federal arrest. They train people how to say things to the federal agents when they come and arrest people. You know what it means? The local government failed to deliver sound government practices. And they are teaching people how to be criminals.

NARRATION: Recreational cannabis is not the only drug that is easy to get in San Francisco. You can get other drugs easily too. This attracts more drug addicts to the city.

MS. ZHOU: She is from San Leandro. There is no drugs in San Leandro, so she has to come here to get drugs in San Francisco.

NARRATION: This woman does not work. She receives welfare from the government and maintains a 500 dollar per month apartment in San Leandro. She travels to San Francisco to get drugs every week.

NARRATION: When drugs and homelessness combine, it can be dangerous for everyone. Needles are scattered everywhere and people die of drug overdoses on the street. How does the city cope with this problem? London Breed, President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the acting mayor of San Francisco, helped secure funds to open the first safe injection site where people can go in and inject drugs with someone on the side to watch for overdose and help collect used needles. In mayoral candidate Jane Kim’s district, this function is expanded to pit stops. Although the main purpose of a pit stop is to serve as a mobile bathroom, it also collects used needles, and drug addicts use it for injections. San Francisco resident Christine is not happy about what’s going on around the pit stops.

RESIDENT: You know what is surprising is that he was hired by DPW. So they hired him, and he is encouraging them to do drugs in there.

MS. ZHOU: In the bathroom?


MS. ZHOU: How do you know that they are encouraging…

RESIDENT: I was standing there, that’s why. I have a little disposable — I went out and took the pictures.

MS. ZHOU: So you are saying DPW hires people to patrol the area, and they encourage people to do drugs.


MS. ZHOU: Are you a resident here?


MS. ZHOU: How long have you been living here?

RESIDENT: My whole adult life, so almost 30 years.

MS. ZHOU: If you have a choice, what do you want to see a new mayor do for you?

RESIDENT: Basically, it is the issue of crime and drugs and stuff. The people here want the exact opposite of what the mayor and stuff is doing. He is pushing, like what he just did, he is pushing drugs. He wants to give him another drug. I say, no, get him off the drug. If it is Narcan, stop the drug and give him Narcan.  Stop it. Get him clean. All they are doing is giving him a different drug. Who cares if it is methadone or heroin. It is just another drug. Get him off the drug.

MS. ZHOU: The government spends a lot of money on homeless, but they are not treating the root cause. Drugs, lost faith, lost hope and no expectation. Just spend money and give it to them is not going to help them. We need to train, rehab, group them together. If they are sick, treat the sickness. If they are mentally ill, we have them, if they are substance abuse, we have them. We need to take care of people like families. If I don’t want people on drugs, I don’t want to see people on drugs. I don’t want to see the youth on drugs. But look at the youth earlier. They are doing drugs in here. They are dealing drugs. They are selling drugs.

NARRATION: Coming up, what does the homeless population really want? What is the best way to get them back on their feet?

Part 3: The Root Cure Is to Help People Become Independent and Have Dignity

NARRATION: Despite drug abuse and many other problems, a lot of the homeless people are still hoping to get a new start.

HOMELESS RESIDENT: I want to go to school so I can be my own boss and have my own job.

MS. ZHOU: That is a very good one. You want to go back to school and have skill and be your own boss. I like that.

HOMELESS RESIDENT: I’m trying to apply right now for City College, Free City for the fall semester.

MS. ZHOU: Good. You have hope.

HOMELESS RESIDENT: If I have some place where I can change my clothes, wipe my face and brush my teeth every day, then I will go to look for a job. I am 51 years old, and I don’t want to live like this.

MS. ZHOU: We all know all the current policy failed the homeless because we don’t expect people to be independent. We don’t expect people to have jobs. We don’t expect people to renew their lives. We don’t give hope to people. We don’t love them. We only tell them, here, sleep on here. That’s it. That is not what a mayor should do. A mayor is to meet with them, explore what skills they have, and train them to be the best they can be, and help them to rediscover their livelihood. Many people I spoke to, they just want a little tiny push. Give them housing, give them a job and give them responsibility like a person.

MS. GAO: A drug addicted homeless population is one of the most vulnerable parts of society. No doubt we need to help them. At the same time, they can’t get better on an honor system, and it harms the rest of society when they don’t get better. How should our society deal with this problem? San Francisco has been the most faithful practitioner of the nation’s progressive policy for decades. However, to more and more people, it’s become clear that this policy is failing this historic city. The upcoming mayoral election and more elections in the future might become a referendum on it. Let’s wait and see. This concludes today’s program. Thanks for watching Zooming In. I am Simone Gao and see you next week.

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