Castro sees progress on streets, D8 liaison says

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday June 14, 2023
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District 8 safety liaison Dave Burke, with his dog Daisy, thinks that street conditions are slowly improving in the Castro. Photo: Rick Gerharter
District 8 safety liaison Dave Burke, with his dog Daisy, thinks that street conditions are slowly improving in the Castro. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Two and a half years into his time as District 8's public safety liaison, Dave Burke said street conditions in the LGBTQ Castro area are improving. But he acknowledged they still lag behind other San Francisco neighborhoods.

"I think people are making positive changes," Burke told the Bay Area Reporter. "It's very different but I think the Castro is on a better track. I live two blocks from the Lower Haight. I go there to get my daughter her favorite pizza, and the Lower Haight is hopping. It's hopping. Then I walk out to the Castro and I'd like to see more storefronts with things in them. That would go a long way, but it's way outside my field."

What is in Burke's purview, however, is "helping the neighborhood help themselves." He repeated a line from the B.A.R.'s first interview with him, in 2021: "Cities die block by block. They are reborn that way too."

For example, public drug intoxication on Hartford Street has gone down after neighbors set up planters.

"If you walk on Hartford, you see beautiful planters, homemade," he said. "You don't see a tent on Hartford Street anymore; you just don't see it. Neighbors are also participating in the planting. It's their way of having their neighborhood be better, safer, look nicer, frankly, and all this work was pretty much by citizens."

Another example Burke gave was the updated AIDS mural on 16th Street, across from the Eureka Valley branch of the San Francisco Public Library. A tent encampment in that location caught fire in 2020, almost killing someone.

Burke, a straight ally who lives in the Duboce Triangle neighborhood, works through the civilian arm of the San Francisco Police Department and is responsible as a liaison for all of District 8, including Noe Valley and Glen Park. (SFPD did not return a request for comment for this report as of press time.)

Burke had been recommended for the position in 2020 by gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who according to a statement to the B.A.R. last week has no regrets. Gay former D8 supervisor Jeff Sheehy secured the original funding for the program. Burke replaced Jessica Closson, who was the first safety liaison.

"Dave is uniquely well suited for this job, and I often hear from grateful constituents who he has assisted with all manner of public safety concerns," Mandelman stated. "Dave's contributions to interdepartmental efforts to address persistent challenges are invaluable, and any progress we've made in recent years wouldn't have been possible without him."

Terry Asten Bennett, a straight ally who is the president of the Castro Merchants Association, called Burke "an amazing asset to the Castro."

"He is attentive, informative, and caring," Asten Bennett said. "He is an important piece in keeping the community safe. He lets us know when problematic characters are back in the neighborhood so we aren't blindsided. He also helps us collect the information we need to work through the process of getting stay away orders for persistent problem people. He is a blessing in helping us work a murky and unmanageable system."

Andrea Aiello, a lesbian who is the executive director of the Castro Community Benefit District, told the B.A.R. that Burke "works tirelessly trying to solve street level challenges, working with street outreach workers, the police, the DA, and the Castro Community Benefit District."

"Dave Burke is an incredible asset to the community. He really cares about the neighborhood, he cares about the residents, the merchants and the unhoused," she stated. "In fact, Dave's close collaboration with the CBD's clean and safe ambassadors encourages the efficient use of scarce resources. The Castro is lucky to have Dave Burke."

Burke, who has worked in the city attorney and district attorney's offices, said his skill is helping people figure out where to go and who to talk to about problems.

"I know how things get done and I know the people who get them done," he said.

Burke said an interdepartmental working group has identified some of the unhoused people who need help the most and "some of the more intractable unhoused people" have agreed to accept services, after some persistence.

"I feel conditions in the Castro, compared to two years ago, are dramatically better," he said. "We don't have dozens of tents. Because of this effort, we have people who've refused housing for years accept some shelter."

It continues to be difficult for the Castro in particular, however, due to fear of discrimination, he noted.

"Many homeless people in the Castro are LGBT people who may face danger in the general homeless population and who come here for some protection," Burke said. "We do have the injunction in place, and I'm not going to get into that, but I do think it's important."

The injunction Burke is referring to was ordered late last year by federal magistrate Judge Donna Ryu in the case of Coalition on Homelessness v. San Francisco. The order prohibits the city from enforcing policing practices that violate the civil rights of unhoused San Franciscans. Additionally, the order stops the city from seizing and destroying unhoused people's survival gear and personal property. City Attorney David Chiu has appealed the decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal.

Mandelman agreed with Burke's assessment on street conditions having improved.

"Street conditions in the Castro are not what I'd like them to be, but when I look back to the height of the pandemic there is no question we have made enormous progress in reducing the number and scale of encampments in the neighborhood and have moved many folks off the sidewalk into shelter and housing," he stated, referring to the 2020 lockdown due to COVID.

Asten Bennett, who co-owns Cliff's Variety on Castro Street, agreed.

"Although still problematic on many levels I would say that we are seeing slow but steady improvements," she stated. "I no longer see the blatant outdoor use of needles that plagued the Castro a few years ago."

Not everyone does, though. Kathy Amendola, longtime owner of Cruisin' The Castro Walking Tours, told the B.A.R. that "from my perspective of running a business several days a week, the reason they think there's more improvement is because many of us are calling in complaining."

"If you stand at Castro and Market [streets] at 9-10 in the morning, just watch the psychosis going on all over the corners," she said. "As a business owner, I am the only company exposed to drag my tour members through illegal drug encampments and psychosis and mental illness."

Burke said he understands Amendola's concerns.

"I know how Kathy feels and I respect that," Burke said. He reiterated the responsibility of neighbors, landlords, and businesses to look out for each other.

"When something shutters, like the 7-Eleven at Noe and 18th [streets], there's a lot of activity," Burke said. "That's the big thing — neighbors taking care of their own streets."

Burke said the liaison program has expanded to District 11, which covers the Excelsior and Outer Mission, among other neighborhoods, and is represented by Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, who is running against Mayor London Breed next year.

Safaí stated to the B.A.R. that "the position was created last year and has been doing amazing work for our district." He did not say who the liaison is.

Burke called the program's expansion "my biggest source of pride" and said several other supervisors are looking to bring a safety liaison into their districts.

"I'd like to see a job like mine in every district," he said.

People who'd like to get in touch with Burke can contact him at [email protected], he stated.

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