Erica Sandberg joins Seth Barron to discuss how San Francisco’s small-business owners are handling the city’s latest lockdown, how new outdoor dining facilities became a magnet for the homeless, and whether California public officials who violate Covid restrictions will face political consequences.

Audio Transcript

Seth Barron: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Seth Barron, associate editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today, is Erica Sandberg. Erica is a widely published consumer finance reporter, based in San Francisco. And she writes for City Journal, mostly on homelessness, crime, and other safety issues in her beloved Bay Area. You can follow her on Twitter, @EricaJSandberg.

Her latest piece for City Journal, Doorway Denizens, details how San Francisco's small business owners are handling the surge of street homelessness, that began after the latest lockdown went into effect in early December, though it's a perennial and recurring problem. Erica, thanks for joining us.

Erica Sandberg: Thank you so much, Seth. Glad to be here.

Seth Barron: So, your piece, Doorway Denizens, provide some vivid details about the aftermath of California's lockdown. Business owners, I gather, had invested in some new street furniture and it's being used in a... repurposed, let's say. Can you explain, to our listeners, what happened?

Erica Sandberg: Absolutely. Yeah, San Francisco City allowed what was called The Shared Spaces Program, which was actually quite remarkable. It was a really amazing example of what the city can do and can do right. Which is to get businesses in action, in any way they can, which is to build these parklets. Essentially, these outdoor spaces, where people could eat. Fitness centers were using them, they put the exercise bikes, et cetera, out in them. And they were lovely. In fact, they were turning out to be these incredible attraction where, here we were in COVID and everything was shut down and it was so dark and so bleak. And then these parklets sprung up and business owners spent a fortune, to do them. They actually were averaging around $15,000, out of the pockets of these business owners. So that they could bring in revenue.

And the residents were thrilled, because we finally had some life. We finally had some kind of semblance of, "Oh, this is actually pleasant. This is something that we can do and we can do it safely." And then, they were shut down.

And when they were shut down and it was almost immediate, the difference in what happened. These beautiful, outdoor places went from vibrancy and money-making operations and people were working and doing what they need, into devastation. Everything from vandalism, to people sleeping in them, to them becoming places for people to do drugs and sell drugs. And then, use it as toilets. It was almost overnight.

Seth Barron: Wow. And I gather, you talked to some local businesses and business owners. What have you learned, from them, that we aren't hearing?

Erica Sandberg: It was devastating. They actually embraced the parklets so strongly, because they were so excited. And then, when they shut down and all of this started to happen, it was... I'm not even sure I can describe how badly they felt. Just so disrespected and so slapped in the face, by all of this, because there was virtually nothing that they could do.

Many of them couldn't close these parklets and they were required to keep them in working order, even though they weren't in working order. So, they had to clean them. And it has been this devastating experience for them, because now they're struggling. They have to go to the parklets, where these people are and say, "Hey, could you please not use my parklet as a bathroom? Can you please not throw your hypodermic needles, everywhere?"

Or they're sweeping out all of this stuff, or they're being attacked. What I've heard from small business owners, is so devastating and it's even worse, because the city hasn't stepped up and said, "We're going to help you." And they haven't. It's really been left on them.

Seth Barron: So, these are essentially kiosks or booths, like semi-permanent structures in the street, outside of their storefronts?

Erica Sandberg: Yeah. I would love everyone to imagine this. Some of them were very basic and they were platforms and tables were set up. As the requirements got stricter and stricter, they had to conform to these requirements. So, in the beginning, there would be tables and chairs. And then, they had an overhang and then they had plastic in between the tables. The business owners were... They were driving themselves crazy, trying to keep these up, with all the different restrictions they had to deal with.

But some of them were quite elaborate. They had hanging plants, they had beautiful lights, especially during the holiday season. So they were decorated it, there was almost a competition. How beautiful could you make them? And still comply? Still totally comply, with COVID-19 restrictions, for safe to use.

Seth Barron: Now these have essentially just become... Are people sleeping in them? Using them for whatever purpose and...

Erica Sandberg: Oh. Yeah, it's pretty horrifying. And no, not all of them and it depends on where they are. But, it's becoming increasingly common to walk by. In fact, I was just out yesterday and two of the parklets had become homeless shelters. There were three people in one, there was a tarp, there was empty food containers. There were foil for fentanyl. It's really quite remarkable about what they have turned into.

Seth Barron: What has been the city's response?

Erica Sandberg: The city has responded by fining the business owners, for any kind of abuse to the parklets themselves, because they have to be kept within a certain amount of order. So they have to be somewhat clean. The graffiti has got to be removed. That's up to the business owner to do it, not the city. And there's fines forthcoming. So, it's astonishing.

Seth Barron: Huh? That seems like something of a catch-22, or rather perverse use of private dollars. You've been writing about the homeless problem in San Francisco for a long time, but you've talked, also, about how it's changed since the COVID lockdowns went into effect. Starting in March, the city shut down a lot of the homeless shelters and started putting people into hotels with bad results, but have they started unwinding that program? What's going on now?

Erica Sandberg: It seems to be in this perpetual state of, "We're closing it. We're keeping them open. We're closing. We're keeping... Oh, the federal government is going to step in, with funding."

It's a mess. Nobody's being transparent. Apparently, it was supposed to end. And then, the city said that they actually did receive some extra funding, so they could continue it. Nobody's being clear.

What we do know is that, some people have been moved out of the hotels, due to financial restrictions. They just simply don't have the money. They're extraordinarily expensive. I suggest, sit down for these numbers, because it truly is a matter of each person, in each room, is costing the city somewhere between 6000 and $7500, a month.

So, it is phenomenally expensive. And, the city has closed the shelters and they're sitting empty. The Department of Public Health provided a roadmap, to opening them up, safely. The city ignored it. So we've got people on the street, desperate. It's cold, it's rainy, it's terrible. And now, these shelters, that the city paid a fortune for, are empty.

Seth Barron: So, I gather that one problem with having people in hotels, as opposed to shelters; is that shelters, they can have some regulations. For instance, they can forbid you from drinking alcohol or smoking or doing drugs on the premises. At least in New York, it works this way... There may be a time at which you have to check in, so you can't go out at night. But in the hotels, there's essentially no restrictions. Is that what's happening in San Francisco?

Erica Sandberg: Well, they're supposed to have restrictions and they're supposed to be monitored. There are certain things that are completely unrestricted. And I'm just going to say, drug use. In fact, I covered this in a couple of stories, is the city actually provides drug supplies, to people in the hotels. So that would be everything from the needles, to the fentanyl foils and the straws to use it with. Narcan, you name it, they're giving them all of this paraphernalia, so that they can do their drugs, and I'm putting air quotes, "Safely within the hotel rooms."

Unfortunately, we have seen a huge spike, in overdose deaths. We are nearing 700 ODs, right now, fatal ODs in San Francisco. Which, blows the number for COVID deaths, out of the water. We have about 180 COVID deaths, here. So you see this huge difference. And many of these deaths are occurring in the hotel rooms because people, they do their drugs. They take their in their hotel room alone, or sometimes they bring friends in and they die.

It's this devastating experience that our city leaders aren't addressing. And even those who are, are doing it in such a lighthearted manner, that nothing is happening. In fact, one of our supervisors, Matt Haney, is going full force into the hotels. "We are going to open more Project Room Key. We're going to purchase a hotel. We're going to get these motels." And it's this full court press, into more and more and more. And it's not a solution.

Seth Barron: So, would you say that the leadership in San Francisco and maybe in California, generally, are they in denial that there's a problem or do they just see it as a question? Do they acknowledge, "Yes, there's a problem, but we need more resources." What is the response? I mean, from what I gather, this is a major issue.

Erica Sandberg: I hope they're in denial, because if they're not in denial, that means that they're cruel. And I would actually prefer ignorance. Unfortunately, I think it's their ideologues. This is something that makes sense to them. This is something, that they don't necessarily believe in private property. They would love to take over. This is absolutely a socialist perspective, that the people belong. The people have a right to private property, to somebody else's private property.

That's the way it works and that's a fact. Some are more intent on that, than others. But yeah, we've got a couple of people on our board of supervisors, they're just straight up socialists. This is something that they want. And, they would love to occupy these hotels and turn them into shelters, forevermore.

And that's just a start. Yeah, I don't think that they're ignorant. I think that this is deliberate and it's going to continue, unless we stop them.

Seth Barron: I'm sure our listeners are aware that over the last few months, there's been these pretty high profile incidents, involving California politicians, breaking their own lockdown rules. Nancy Pelosi went to the salon. Governor Newsom went to a fancy restaurant. There's been a number of these, I believe. Will there be consequences for these elected officials?

Erica Sandberg: Oh, yes. Yes. This is what's actually fairly exciting, is that we are seeing a movement toward not accepting the sort of the 'Do as I say, not as I do.' The mentality, which is what we're being confronted with, over and over again. And people are very upset. We are seeing people from all over San Francisco saying, "I'm a liberal, I don't believe in this. I can't take this any longer."

The decisions are being made by people that, now, people do not trust. The residents do not trust. And once you ruin your reputation, it's really hard to repair it. And the reputation of city leaders, here in San Francisco, is abysmal. It is at the bottom. And we just had a recent situation with our DA, Chesa Boudin, who sealed the deal on that. It's so bad, that there is a revolt that he may be ousted. And London Breed has gone underground. It's chaos.

Seth Barron: Is there an effort to recall Chesa Boudin?

Erica Sandberg: There is a strong effort and it's really what he did recently, and I'll just say it just real quickly, in a nutshell here, is... As the district attorney, he has made it his "raison d'être", to ensure that people are not behind bars. All criminals. And somebody recently, there was a man who should have been... He was a career criminal. He stole somebody's car keys, a date that he was supposed to be on. Stole her car keys, gotten in her car... So, he stole her car, was drunk and high. And he mowed over two people on New Year's Day. A young lady and an older woman, and both were killed. And it was this devastating murder. And this is all because of Chesa Boudin, because when he was a public defender, he actually defended this guy.

And so this guy was free to roam the streets, after many, many times being taken in for multiple crimes. And it's been chaotic around here, because people are waking up and they're refusing to just let city officials, like Chesa Boudin and the board of supervisors, continue on. And it's kind of exciting, I have to say. It's a thrill, getting a lot of emails. A lot of people say, "What can I do? How can I help? How can I make sure that we change this?" So, it's nice.

Seth Barron: I gather there's a recall campaign against the governor. Will that get any momentum? Is there a chance that, that could happen?

Erica Sandberg: Yeah, that's pretty strong actually. And we shall see about that. It's obviously pretty tough to recall a governor, but Kevin Kiley, who is an Assemblyman out of Sacramento I believe, is leading it. And he is really getting traction and it's very strong.

California is a mess. Our homelessness crisis is beyond the pale. Our economic situation is devastating. I can just say, for the city of San Francisco, we're deep, deep in debt. We may not be able to operate our Muni system, any longer. We're in tatters.

And so, what happens when a community is desperate. Well, the people revolt and we're beginning to see that, in a pretty intense way. And, as terrible as it has been, it's a thrill to see more people becoming more involved. And that's what's happening. And if I were our city's leaders, I would be very nervous.

Seth Barron: Hmm. Well, God bless the rebellion, I guess. Don't forget to check out Erica Sandberg's piece at City Journal, it's called Doorway Denizens. You can find it on our website and we'll link to it, in the description. You can follow us on Twitter, @CityJournal and on Instagram, @cityjournal_mi.

And, as always, if you like what you heard on the podcast, give us a five star rating on iTunes. Thanks for listening and thanks Erica, for joining us.

Erica Sandberg: Thank you so much, Seth.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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