Homelessness is an ever-present and ever-growing problem which seems to confound policymakers around our nation. Many believe that the current crisis facing America is one which can be easily solved through some magical stroke of a lawmaker’s pen or an elected official’s savvy decision making. However, it appears the more attention politicians have given to this issue, the greater the misunderstanding and social stigma. The best “solutions” only seem to exacerbate an already unpopular social crisis and increase a gulf of misunderstanding between those who have and those who have not.
Nowhere is the rift between those locked within a tight socio-economic quagmire more clearly shown than within our major cities. San Francisco is one of the wealthiest cities in America; however, its well-lit avenues are filled with those suffering from substance abuse and a myriad of mental health conditions. With so much visible suffering, addressing the root of the crisis seems daunting.
At the end of 2021, in an eleventh-hour brainstorm between some of the finest local thinkers, a newly hatched policy was designed to both increase safety on San Francisco’s city streets, and offer the thousands of people experiencing homelessness in this city a much needed navigation center to connect them with resources such as housing, employment training and other necessities. The program was named the Linkage Center, and its agenda was rushed through despite public controversy on a platform that such a center would offer services almost unheard of in any other major metropolis around the country. It would do this while providing a safe injection site for those battling opiate and opioid addiction.
Providing a location where houseless substance users could safely use narcotics seemed a bit unorthodox,but it was on the cutting edge of harm reduction services. Drug users could go to the Linkage Center and feel like they were socially accepted rather than stigmatized for using. The center also prevented people from being criminalized because they were able to use without fear of being targeted by police, arrested or brutalized. Therefore, the safe-usage space also minimized the risk of infection or overdose. Before the center opened, just as many people were using drugs, but they were forced to do it on the streets without the supplies necessary to use safely.
Unfortunately, these same policymakers chose to ignore some very important and potentially deadly questions: How long would such a program remain open? Who would fund it? What would occur when, in the worst case scenario, this pilot program ended? What would become of the people left behind in the aftermath of a closed safe-site?
The implementation of the Linkage Center in January 2022 was ushered in as a response to a public health and safety crisis, but there were some caveats. When you entered the center, you were given the paraphernalia you needed to use safely and then instructed to sit in a specific area. You could be thrown out if you moved around, which I often did because I like meeting and connecting with people, especially when I’m high. While most of the staff were very kind, some of them seemed to see addicts in a negative light and treated us poorly. That problem only increased toward the end of the program, when some people on staff seemed to take out their anxiety about the site closing on us.
But what was really dangerous and shocking was the nature with which the Linkage Center program so abruptly ended. While it was open, San Francisco kept the doors for this safe injection site open to a ready and willing narcotized clientele, providing visitors with all the narcotics paraphernalia they’d require in order to remain in a state of euphoria from opening to closing. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. That’s exactly what occurred on December 4, 2022 when the doors of the Linkage Center/Navigation Hub permanently closed;nothing in the form of opiate cessation or substance use programs were opened to replace it. This came on the cusp of an ever-worsening fentanyl problem which the City has yet to address.
Sadly, few lawmakers have offered any alternative solutions as they witness a segment of the City’s populace suffer from the effects of long-term effects of fentanyl addiction and other mental disorders. If that wasn’t enough, the horrors of xylazine—or “tranq”—infused street fentanyl only exacerbates the crisis. For those who do not know, “tranq” is an equine tranquilizer which both boosts the length of fentanyl euphoria but causes chronic health issues, such as skin lesions that could ultimately lead to amputation of limbs.
As a person who has used opiates for 33 years, I know how it feels to be among those left to fend for ourselves in a cruel and expensive city. I know what it’s like to be homeless, unemployed and unemployable, and to be without hope. It tears me up inside when I see people strung up on fentanyl because I know they are fighting a monster that is beyond them. Once you get addicted to that stuff, it really changes you. It saddens me to watch many concerned action groups wring their hands in consternation and frustration as to what should be done to save this beautiful city. In an effort not to sound cavalier, only time will reveal. In the meantime, scores of addicts within the confines of the Bay Area must helplessly watch as their fellow friends and family fall through the cracks of a system which just seems to be unconcerned with their continued safety and welfare.