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Frustrated SF residents arm themselves with bats, tasers after opening of drug sobering center

<i>KGO</i><br/>Some residents in one San Francisco neighborhood have resorted to arming themselves with baseball bats and tasers after the opening of the city's first pilot drug sobering center.
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Some residents in one San Francisco neighborhood have resorted to arming themselves with baseball bats and tasers after the opening of the city's first pilot drug sobering center.

By Dion Lim

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    SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) — Some residents in one San Francisco neighborhood have resorted to arming themselves with baseball bats and tasers after the opening of the city’s first pilot drug sobering center.

Adam Mesnik lives in the SOMA neighborhood and owns a business. He calls what he’s seeing on the streets as “a period of insanity.”

He’s referring to what he and others believe is an increased presence of drug use, violence and crime on the streets since SOMA Rise opened in June.

Ghis, who provided us only with her first name, is a 31-year resident of the neighborhood and says, “More troublemakers settling in, feeling comfortable doing their drugs, pissing and sh**ting in the street blocking the sidewalks.”

Residents and business owners say their complaints to HealthRight 360, the nonprofit running the center, have fallen on deaf ears and have resorted to documenting their struggles in phone camera videos and surveillance.

Mark Sackett is a longtime business owner and resident. He estimates the increase in drug use and debauchery has cost him more than $100,000 in lost business in the 2022 calendar year.

“They’re letting their clients come out here and get high, go inside and get sober and then get high again.”

Neighbor “Bill” echoed those sentiments as a business owner himself. He sometimes is unable to enter his building because of the amount of people sleeping or splayed out on the sidewalk blocking the door.

“Every morning it’s a roulette. When you show up at your office, are there going to be 10 people passed out in front of your building? Are they going to be violent? This was never a problem before HealthRight 360 moved in,” he says.

Some even resorted to arming themselves against the belligerent or violent with baseball bats and tasers.

Vitka Eisen, CEO of HealthRight 360, says she is listening to neighborhood frustrations and has spoken to a number of people who have opposed the opening of the sobering center.

“I would go so far as to say, be patient with us,” she said via Zoom on Monday afternoon.

She acknowledges the need for adjustments. The nonprofit says an example is no longer handing out food and drug supplies after complaints of loitering outside of buildings.

“We can’t fix everything, but we’re a piece of that; a piece of the city trying novel things to respond to people experiencing homeless and street drug use and mental illness,” she says.

The San Francisco Department of Public Health tells ABC7 News the operating budget for SOMA Rise in the 22/23 fiscal year is $4.2 million funded by taxpayers — $3.5 million of that going to the lease and HealthRight 360.

The nonprofit says they currently have 20 beds available and serve 240 clients a week.

While residents we spoke with don’t believe the payoff is worth the cost to quality of life, Eisen believes the sobering center’s strategy is working and is better than not having a program at all.

“After three months of being there, I think it’s a great start. I think it’ll be part of a network of services for the city, as part of their overdose plan and treatment on response.”

HealthRight 360 has an 18-month contract at Howard Street. The city will then reassess its efficacy. For the group of residents upset over the sobering center, their minds are made up.

“If you ask me, it should be closed down and there should be other approaches to the homeless and drug problem we’re all facing,” says Bill.

The drug sobering center was supported by Mayor London Breed. ABC7 News reached out to her office for this story but did not hear back in time for the Monday deadline.

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