SF mayor responds to Castro Merchants group complaints

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday September 21, 2022
Share this Post:
Pedestrians walk along Castro Street in 2019. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Pedestrians walk along Castro Street in 2019. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Calling on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to support increased coordination between various city departments, such as law enforcement and public health, as well as a broader conservatorship program to get help to people unable to make reasonable decisions about their own health or circumstances, Mayor London Breed last week finally addressed the matters brought up in a letter to city leaders by the Castro Merchants Association more than a month ago.

It was Breed's first real public response to the letter sent by the merchants group to the mayor and other city leaders on August 8, and it came only after gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman brought it up during the mayor's monthly question time appearance before the Board of Supervisors at its September 12 meeting.

Although the merchants' letter never stated the group's intentions if their pleas weren't met with action, CMA co-president Dave Karraker told the B.A.R. and other media that members would resort to civil disobedience if they had to. Castro merchants could begin withholding the fees they pay to the city until they see action, he said. That led to much coverage in media outlets, including conservative ones, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported.

After asking the 11 supervisors to "be open to new ideas," and after a particularly pointed round of questions by District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston about further enhancing public transit following the COVID shutdowns, Mandelman reminded Breed about a question he had asked her back in 2018.

"I asked you if Castro residents could expect to see an improvement in street conditions given the explanation of shelter beds and other investments in solving homelessness," he said. "At the time you answered that you believed they would."

The Castro, like many neighborhoods and business corridors throughout the city, has been struggling with the presence of homeless encampments and a large number of people likely suffering from drug addiction and mental illness. Arguably, the Castro — with its particular world-wide visibility and iconic status — has been hit particularly hard and businesses in the LGBTQ neighborhood have suffered, as a result. Since 2018, and particularly after the COVID outbreak further impacted already struggling shops and businesses starting in 2020, Castro merchants have been clamoring to make their concerns heard.

In August, CMA sent its letter to Breed and numerous city officials reminding them of the efforts the group has made over the years to get help from city leaders, and asked that the neighborhood be made "a priority area for services, given its stature as one of the most visited (and photographed) neighborhoods in the city."

Mandelman's questions to the mayor were a reminder of those efforts, both four years ago and, in particular, over the past couple of years. While he acknowledged there have been "significant improvements" in how the city works with its unhoused residents, and that he was grateful to be able to work with the mayor on those efforts, more needs to be done.

"At this point I don't feel I can honestly tell my constituents in the Castro that we've made the progress we wanted to or that we've made a clear plan to get to where we want to be," Mandelman said. "So Madam Mayor, what can I tell them? Do we have a path forward? Can we make this better on a reasonable timeline? If so, how? And if not, why not?"

Breed responded that she could appreciate the challenges Mandelman was facing.

"I understand the frustrations of the residents of the Castro," she said. "I'm frustrated too."

The mayor offered a laundry list of programs and successes the city has had in its efforts to address homelessness, noting that part of the frustration she feels stems from the fact that the city has been "adding new shelter beds and housing like never before." The city is working hard to address the health needs of people who "have more complex situations," she said, but with so many refusing that help, the situation remains a challenge.

"But even with all these resources, more and more, we are encountering people who we can not help simply by offering them a bed," she continued. "So many of the people we are tracking in the Castro have refused what staff has offered them. These individuals are struggling and they need more, and we need to make it clear that this is an option they need to take."

Better coordination between city departments is needed, she said, "so that when someone is not accepting resources they're not allowed to continue disrupting the neighborhood."

Breed noted that while CARE Court, a program signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom earlier this month, will help with "certain individuals," a broader set of conservatorship reforms failed to make it through the Legislature.

Titled the Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment Act, CARE "will allow family members and first responders to ask a judge to draw up a treatment plan for people deemed to be suffering from those disorders. Those who refuse could be placed under a conservatorship and ordered to comply," KQED reported.

Breed said state lawmakers likely would try to get the reforms through the next legislative session, but "in addition to this work, we will continue to bring resources on line as fast as possible. Not just in the Castro but in all of our neighborhoods. And we will continue our work with groups like the Castro Merchants to discuss how the city can coordinate to continue to partner with them going forward."

Terrance Alan, co-president of CMA, said he was pleased to hear the mayor's response.

"This feels like a very positive sign and the first time she has said the [San Francisco Police Department] will be a solution to this problem," Alan wrote in an email to the B.A.R. "We have a long way to go, and solutions are going to require a shift in attitude by SFPD towards those who refuse services. Passing them by and leaving them to disrupt the neighborhood isn't a solution. There are lots of reasons given for why we are in this position, so it will take a systemic change, and we hope the mayor is able to follow up on her statements."

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.