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San Francisco’s vaunted tolerance dims amid brazen crimes, open drug use and soiled streets

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 used needles, other drug paraphernalia, and human feces outside of the bar she manages, and having many encounters with armed people in crisis, her affection for the city has been tainted.

“It was a goal to live here, but now I’m here thinking, ‘Where should I move now?’ I’m over it, ‘”said Foster, who runs the Noir Lounge in the hip Hayes Valley neighborhood.

A series of headline-grabbing crime stories – crowds breaking windows and snatching luxury purses in downtown Union Square, and daytime shootings in touristy Haight-Ashbury – only added to the feeling of vulnerability. Residents wake up to the news of attacks on Asian-American seniors, broken-in restaurants and boarded-up shop fronts in the city’s once-vibrant downtown area.

The San Franciscans pride themselves on their liberal political leanings and generously approve tax measures for schools and the homeless. They accept that garbage roads, tent camps and petty crime are the price one has to pay to live in an urban wonderland.

But the frustration of Foster, who moved from Seattle in search of more sunshine, is growing among residents who are now seeing a city in decline. There are signs that the city, famous for its tolerance, is losing patience.

The pandemic has emptied parts of San Francisco, highlighting some of its drawbacks: human and dog droppings smeared on sidewalks, break-ins into homes and vehicles, overcrowded bins, and a laissez-faire approach by officials to brazen drug trafficking. Parents were desperate as public schools remained closed for most of last year as nearby counties welcomed the children back into the classroom.

Meanwhile, residents and visitors scurry past scenes of lawlessness and misery. Just steps from the Opera House and Symphony Hall, drug dealers carry translucent bags with crystal-like stones or stand outside the main branch of the public library while haggling on heroin and methamphetamine.

“There is a widespread feeling in San Francisco that things are on the wrong track,” said Patrick Wolff, 53, a retired professional chess player from the Boston area who has lived in the city since 2005.

As a sign of civic frustration, the San Franciscans will vote in June on whether to remove District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a former public defender who was elected in 2019 and whose critics say he is too lenient about crime. Its supporters say there is no spike in crime and that corporate wage theft is a more pressing issue than cases like that of a San Francisco woman who was eventually arrested after stealing more than $ 40,000 in goods from a target in 120 visits had. She was released by a judge and arrested again on suspicion of shoplifting after she failed to come to collect her court-ordered ankle monitor.

“Where is the progress? If you say you’re progressive, let’s get the homeless off the streets and get them mental health care, ”said Brian Cassanego, a native of San Francisco who owns the lounge where Foster works. He moved to Wine Country five months ago because he was tired of seeing dealers selling drugs with impunity and worrying that his wife would be out alone at night.

The day before he moved, Cassanego went out to take his dogs for a walk and saw a man who “looked like a zombie” with pants up to his knees and bleeding from a syringe stuck in his hip. Nearby, a woman screamed in shock.

“I went upstairs and said to my wife, ‘We’re going now! This town is ready! ‘”He said.

Theft reports – shoplifting from a person or a company – increased by almost 17% to more than 28,000 compared to the same period last year. Inquiries about cleaning dirty streets and sidewalks are most calls to 311, the city’s service number.

Overall, however, crime has been falling for years. More than 45,000 incidents have been reported so far this year, compared to the previous year when most people were locked in closed rooms, but fewer than the roughly 60,000 complaints in previous years.

San Francisco’s well-publicized problems have served as fodder for the conservative media. Former President Donald Trump recently stepped in again, releasing a statement saying the National Guard should be sent to San Francisco to prevent robberies.

Elected officials say they are grappling with deep societal problems that are common in every major US 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 are romping on the streets, naked and in need of medical help. Last year, 712 people died from drug overdoses, compared to 257 people who died from COVID-19.

LeAnn Corpus, an administrative assistant who enjoys figure skating, eschews the downtown ice rinks and won’t bring her 8-year-old son there after dark because of open drug use. Still, the city’s urban problems have crept into its Portola neighborhood far from downtown.

A homeless man used a bicycle and a sheet to pitch a makeshift tent in front of her house and relieved himself on the sidewalk. She called the police, who came two hours later and cleared him out, but a homeless man camped in the back yard of her aunt’s house for six months after trying to get the authorities to remove him.

“This town just doesn’t feel like it anymore,” said Corpus, a third generation local.

San Francisco residents, who are generally uncomfortable with government surveillance, have installed security cameras and bolts to prevent break-ins and have begun to suspect outsiders.

Last night, on an otherwise warm evening, Joya Pramanik’s husband saw someone wearing a ski mask on their quiet street. She worried that the masked man was up to no good – and it pains her to say that because what she loves about San Francisco is the light hug of all kinds of characters.

Pramanik, a project manager who moved to the US from India as a teenager, hailed Trump’s failed re-election proposal but said she realized too late that democratic activists had kidnapped her city.

“If I say I want to enforce the law, I am racist,” she said. “I say, ‘No, I’m not a racist. There’s a reason I live in San Francisco. ‘”

Last year Wolff, the retired chess player, helped start a new political organization that aims to elect local officials who focus on solving urgent problems. Families for San Francisco will vote Democrats, but it will be organized outside of the city’s powerful Democratic Party’s establishment, he said.

Wolff hopes to change a bourgeois way of thinking that no longer expects much from basic services.

In hip Hayes Valley, for example, business owners who are fed up with trash lying around and the city is doing nothing to address the problem have come together to lease closed 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 buy and install new public garbage cans designed to keep rubbish in and thieves out.

That was four months ago.

“We’re still struggling to actually buy the trash cans,” Laska said.

In the Marina, an affluent neighborhood with breathtaking views of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, dozens of residents recently hired private security after an increase in car break-ins.

Lloyd Silverstein, a native of San Francisco and president of the Hayes Valley Merchants Association, said companies are considering hiring security guards and installing high-resolution security cameras. He rejects the idea that a single city official is to blame for the situation and is optimistic that the city will recover.

“We’ve been through great earthquakes and depression and a lot more, but we have a pretty good attitude about recovering. We have some problems but we will solve them, ”he said. “It can only take a while.”


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